Subject: SMH: Too close to the bone: Herald's Jakarta man barred over abuse reports

also: SMH Editorial - Threat To Freedom In Indonesia

Monday, March 18, 2002

Too close to the bone: Herald's Jakarta man barred over abuse reports

"A serious blow to press freedom in Indonesia" ... reporter Murdoch.

By Mark Baker, Herald correspondent in Singapore

The Indonesian Government has refused to extend the work visa of the Herald's Jakarta correspondent, Lindsay Murdoch.

In what is believed to be the first such move against a foreign journalist since the Soeharto era, authorities objected to Murdoch's reporting of human rights abuses in Aceh and Timor.

The decision means that Murdoch, 48, who has covered Indonesia for more than three years for the Herald and The Age, can no longer work as a journalist in the country.

The Australian embassy in Jakarta and the Federal Opposition's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, last night expressed concern at the decision.

An Australian spokesman in Jakarta said the embassy was disappointed that the visa had not been extended despite representations from Australian officials.

"The embassy had raised the issue with the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer himself had also raised the issue twice with Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda," he said.

Mr Rudd said the move was "unfortunate and unacceptable", adding: "I have met Lindsay Murdoch on a number of occasions in Jakarta and regard him as a committed, independent and professional journalist."

In a joint statement, the publishers and editors of the Herald and The Age said they were "gravely concerned" by the decision, which they said had serious implications for press freedom in Indonesia.

"It has been made perfectly clear to us that this decision has been taken in reaction to the authoritative reporting of Mr Murdoch on human rights and related issues in Indonesia," the statement said.

"We reject that any government can seek to decide whether any of our journalists is acceptable for the purposes of reporting from a foreign country.

"We believe that other media organisations in Indonesia, both foreign and domestic, should take note of this development and its implications for the continued emergence and operation of a free press in Indonesia."

The statement said that in response to the refusal of a work visa, the papers had suspended until further notice a decision on replacing Murdoch in Jakarta.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials told Murdoch that they were unhapppy with his reporting of abuses by the military in Aceh [] and on Timorese children removed from refugee camps in West Timor and left in Java [].

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Wahid Supriyadi, told Agence France-Presse that the two newspapers had been told of the decision not to renew Murdoch's journalist visa about three months ago.

"They have had ample time to prepare another correspondent and we have clearly told them that the company should assign a new correspondent," he said.

Mr Supriyadi declined to comment on the reason behind the move, saying that "the decision over whether to issue a particular visa is an inter-ministerial one".

"But he has been accorded a business visa with which he can enter the country but not engage in journalism. So there is certainly no question of a ban for him to enter the country."

Murdoch, who has won two Walkley awards for his reports from Indonesia, said last night that he was extremely disappointed to have been barred from working in the country, calling it "a serious blow to press freedom in Indonesia".

Sydney Morning Herald March 18, 2002


Threat To Freedom In Indonesia

The effective ban on further reporting by The Sydney Morning Herald correspondent in Jakarta, Lindsay Murdoch, is an ominous sign that freedom of the press in Indonesia remains at risk, even under the democratic banner of the Megawati Government. Instead, the decision to deny Mr Murdoch the necessary work permit extension to complete his Indonesian posting harks back to the harassment and intimidation of journalists which marked decades of authoritarian rule under the former president Soeharto.

Mr Murdoch was told by a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official that the decision was based on his "human rights" news reports. The move against Mr Murdoch will be of deep concern, not only to the Jakarta-based foreign press corps, but to thousands of Indonesian journalists who have so optimistically welcomed the end of censorship following the fall of the Soeharto regime almost four years ago.

In particular, Mr Murdoch reported on a horrific murder of a baby boy by Indonesian soldiers in the contested northern province of Aceh, as well as on the long and tragic saga of a group of East Timorese children taken from their parents and sent to orphanages in Indonesia. The freedom of the press, local and foreign, to expose such atrocities is one of the central tenets of any democracy. This principle is recognised in the Indonesian Press Law of 1999, which prohibits press bans and censorship. While the Indonesian Government no longer has the legal instruments with which to close publications or jail journalists, other worrying threats to press freedom are emerging.

Indonesia is facing myriad serious problems. Its weak central government, poorly disciplined security forces, ineffective judicial system and ailing economy demand courageous, accurate reporting and analysis. However, last year alone there were 95 violent attacks on journalists, including one murder, or press facilities. Sadly, Indonesian journalists are not yet free to report without fear and "censorship" has returned in the form of intimidation. Until now, the Jakarta-based foreign press corps has not been targeted. However, by denying Mr Murdoch permission to continue working, the Indonesian Government is sending a troubling message to other foreign correspondents.

The Herald has a long history of authoritative reporting from Indonesia, despite the travel restrictions and expulsion threats of the Soeharto decades. In 1986 a detailed Herald report on the personal fortune amassed by the Soeharto family prompted a ban on all Australian journalists. It was a decade before the Herald was allowed to reopen its Jakarta bureau. It should be remembered that rising public anger over Soeharto's wealth and abuse of power fuelled huge street protests and riots of May 1998 which finally ended Soeharto's rule. With the local press hampered by Soeharto's draconian press laws, Megawati Sukarnoputri, then a leading opposition figure, strongly supported the role of the foreign press in holding Soeharto to account. Thatprinciple should not be so quickly forgotten.

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