William “Billy” Nessen, a former Berkeley activist turned freelance investigative journalist was freed last Sunday by the Indonesian government after being held for 40 days on immigration charges.
Nessen, who was filming a documentary on the conflict in the Aceh province of northern Indonesia between a rebel group, known as GAB, fighting with the Indonesia government to free the region. While in Aceh he also wrote stories about the war for the San Francisco Chronicle and England’s Observer newspaper.
“We’re very happy that the Indonesian government decided to let him go rather than jail him,” said the Chronicle’s Foreign Service Editor Jack Epstein who’s worked with Nessen since 2000. Nessen was being held for visa violations.
The Indonesian government has barred journalists from reporting from Aceh. He had been in the region with GAB rebels for several weeks before surrendering to the Indonesian Army last month. Although convicted, he was sentenced to time served and cannot enter the country again for a year. He was deported earlier this week.
Epstein, who along with Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein, wrote letters on Nessen’s behalf to the Indonesian embassy and the country’s president, says the pressure put on the country by the international journalism community played a key role in his release.
“I think the journalists community lead the way,” said Epstein who noted that the Bay Guardian as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also came to Nessen’s aid.
“We are relieved that Nessen is now free to leave the country,” said CPJ deputy director Joel Simon. “But he was unjustly imprisoned for his work as a journalist. We again call on Indonesian authorities to lift the harsh restrictions on journalists trying to cover military operations in Aceh.”
CPJ had strongly protested Nessen’s imprisonment, noting that his prosecution is part of a broader effort by the Indonesian government to control reporting on the war in Aceh
Berkeley journalist John Lavine, a member of the city of Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Committee, was also pleased to hear of Nessen’s release. “The wonderful thing is that he’s received so much publicity and international attention which is rare” for a journalist, said Lavine.
Epstein says the reason the Indonesian government doesn’t want journalists working in Aceh are that the government has something to hide.
“They don’t want the world to know what the military’s doing in Aceh,” said Epstein. “Every time they’d mention Billy there was the criticism that what they were doing was sending a message to stifle the press.”
Nessen was reporting on the Indonesian Army’s forcing Acehians out of their homes into internment camps and the killing of civilians. An estimated 600 people have been killed in the conflict since hostilities resumed in the region in May.
“It could be an East Timor all over again and they remember what happened then. Journalists reported what the Indonesian military did and the United States stopped military aid because of it,” said Epstein.
Esptein wouldn’t speculate on whether the publicity from Nessen’s arrest and incarceration would help his career or documentary, but he did say the incident “may have put Aceh on the map a bit. The war with these rebels has been going on since 1976 and it’s called the ‘Forgotten War’ because folks never heard of it.”
In addition to the efforts made by journalists, three U.S. Senators also intervened on Nessen’s behalf. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, contacted the Indonesian government calling for Nessen’s release as did both Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Nessen’s home state.
First active in the successful effort to get the UC. system to divest from South Africa in the mid-1980s, Nessen, 46, went on to work for anti-nuclear weapons campaigns with the Livermore Action Group and for human rights in Central America. In the late 80s he received his masters in journalism from the Columbia School of Journalism. He has worked as a freelancer since graduating on stories such as East Timor’s recent successful battle for independence.