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Last Updated: Friday, 9 January, 2004, 10:40 GMT
Aceh journalist's 'impossible task'

By Rachel Harvey
BBC, Jakarta

Journalists covering events in Indonesia's troubled Aceh province have faced a particularly difficult task since martial law was declared last year.

Their movements are severely restricted and local reporters are officially forbidden from contacting separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (Gam).

Maarif, newspaper editor
They put a pistol on the table in front of me and said 'if you keep messing about like you have been, there's a bullet in here for you'
But one editor's testimony has shed light on the unofficial pressures being used to influence and suppress news.

Maarif, whose newspaper closed last month after intimidation from the authorities, said he was hit about the head and threatened with a pistol.

A young man with an intense expression, Maarif has now fled the province and is in hiding.

But even after he left, he continued to receive threatening phone calls asking where he was, and when he was coming back to the province.

Maarif, 25, moved with his family from Java to Aceh in 1981, as part of Indonesia's programme of transmigration. He may not be ethnically Acehnese, but home is where the heart is, and Maarif's heart is firmly rooted in Acehnese soil.

After university, Maarif and a group of his friends, most in their twenties, decided to start their own newspaper in Aceh. "Beudoh" was launched in early 2003, when a now collapsed peace process between the government and rebels was still in effect.

Maarif described the paper as being concerned with issues like human rights, as they affected ordinary people. He said the paper did not often tackle big political subjects.

"All the main papers at that time were supporting the government line so we wanted to present an alternative view," he said.

Over a period of six months, eight editions of the tabloid were published.

Government Line

The military wanted us... to support the government line, but not everyone agrees with martial law

But after martial law was declared in May 2003, local journalists found themselves under enormous pressure, as Maarif discovered first hand.

"There was a conflict between what we wrote and what the military wanted us to write. They wanted us to support the government line, but not everyone agrees with martial law", he said.

One article in particular - about Indonesia's forthcoming parliament elections - attracted the attention of the military authorities.

"We wrote a piece about the election in April. We said that we didn't think it would be possible to have a truly democratic election under martial law, so it would be better not to stage the poll in Aceh".

Maarif was called in for questioning.

"I was interrogated for eight hours. The soldiers slapped me about the head and threw chairs across the room as a kind of shock therapy. They accused me of betraying my country. At one point they rolled up a copy of my paper and started hitting me with that".

The interrogators did not tell Maarif to close the paper. In fact they made it clear that they wanted him to continue publishing, but all articles would have to support the official military line.

"They put a pistol on the table in front of me and said 'if you keep messing about like you have been, there's a bullet in here for you' ".


Indonesian police in Aceh
Maarif said journalists cannot cover the conflict properly
Maarif was eventually allowed to go. After consulting his colleagues on the paper, a decision was taken to cease publication rather than compromise what they considered to be their editorial principles.

Maarif's interrogators had warned him not to tell the media what had happened. But word had already got out.

"My friends already knew I had been called in for questioning." Maarif said, "and in any case the public has a right to know, so I decided to tell my story."

Fearing for his safety, he also decided to leave Aceh.

Maarif's experience has left him disillusioned. He thinks it is impossible for journalists to cover the conflict in Aceh properly.

"It's hard to be balanced because it's so difficult to go into the field and find out what's really happening. All the information is coming from the government or the military. It's impossible to carry out a proper investigation because all local NGO's have been closed".

Despite the difficulties, Maarif said he thought it was important for local journalists to try to tell the truth, so that their reports could be used as reference documents in the future.

But would he ever return to Aceh himself?

"I really want to, but I don't think we can continue with our paper during this military emergency. Maybe when it's all over".


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