I've never met William Nessen. I hope some day I will. He is a true American hero-someone willing to risk his life for the truth. We need more people like him. Now he needs us. We may help to save his life.
William Nessen may be the only Western reporter still covering the rebellion in the Aceh province of Indonesia. The Indonesia military is determined to hold on to Aceh, which is rich in oil and other natural resources. To suppress the rebellion, they are doing things they don't want the world to know about.
Nessen wants the world to know. That's why he went to Aceh. That's why he left the safety of government-controlled territory, to go where the real war is happening. There, he told Australian TV news, he found "the independence movement embodied in [the Aceh rebel movement] GAM is far more extensive than anyone has said before.. They're everywhere." The Indonesian government knows this. That's why, as Nessen says "they are trying to destroy the guerrillas."
The Indonesian strategy is to terrorize the ordinary people, whom the guerillas need for support. Nessen says their main line of attack is to cut off food supplies: "They're starving them." He also talked to eyewitnesses of a bombing attack on defenseless civilians. An Indonesian officer told the Sydney Morning Herald that the bombing was done by U.S. - made F-16s.
As they attack the people of Aceh, the Indonesians are also attacking anyone who, like William Nessen, wants to tell the truth. He was fired on once, he told the Associated Press. "They have threatened me. They've called me a dog. I've heard the local commanders would love to shoot me." He saw a photographer, who was helping him cover the story, killed by Indonesian troops "as he raised his arms in the air."
But the Indonesian military has to be careful with Nessen, who comes from the country they rely on for most of their hardware: the United States. Last week, the Indonesian commander in Aceh, Brigadier-General Bambang Darmono, assured Nessen he would not be shot-if he gives himself up for "questioning."
Nessen wisely insisted that he be guaranteed safe passage out of Indonesia. He knows well enough what "questioning" can mean in
Indonesia: "My fear is of being shot, tortured, beaten and arrested and held indefinitely in a black hole," he told the Australian newspaper, The Age.
When Nessen refused to come in for "questioning," General Darsono became furious. According to TV-Radio Indonesia, "Darsono said that the TNI [Indonesian military] would have to question Nessen to ensure that this sort of thing didn't happen again."
What "sort of thing"? The official Indonesian answer is the risk to the journalists. They say they can't be responsible for the fate of Nessen, or
the 20 other foreign journalists they've just let into Aceh. That's a
right out of the U.S. military's book. If you are "embedded," you are safe. If you are independent, you might end up like the journalists killed in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.
In other words, if you want to be independent, so that you can tell the truth, watch out! We are gunning for you. Nessen's truth-telling is the "sort of thing" the Indonesians want to make sure won't happen again.
Nessen is a peaceable American citizen. He is being threatened by agents of a foreign government, although he is not accused of breaking any laws. That should be enough to have the full power of the U.S. government come to his aid. But it is not clear that he is getting the support every citizen deserves.
Not long ago, says Joshua Nessen, William's brother, the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta told the Indonesians they could question William, as long as they did not charge him with any crime. Now, according to the Associated Press, the embassy is urging President Megawati Sukarnoputri to help Nessen leave Aceh safely. Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave Mrs. Sukarnoputri a similar message, voicing fear that Nessen may be killed or arrested.
But Joshua Nessen says that his brother deserves more than just vague promises of U.S. support. "When he comes out of the jungle, who is going to greet him?" Joshua asks. "Will he have guarantees from the U.S. embassy that he will not be interrogated by the military and that he will get free passage out of the country? Those are the questions he wants resolved before he comes out of the jungle."
U.S. officials may be walking a delicate tightrope. They don't want the embarrassment of seeing a law-abiding U.S. journalist harmed. That could cause a backlash against the Indonesian war in Aceh-a war that the U.S. government has every reason to support. The oil under an independent Aceh might be just as much beyond U.S. control as the oil beneath the sands of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
If our government is serious about fighting for democracy, not just for oil, it has even more reason to aid William Nessen. He is a model citizen, serving the most essential function of democracy: giving citizens the information they need to make wise decisions about public policy. The U.S. has been arming and training the Indonesian military since 1965, when our government supported the anti-communist coup that may have slaughtered up to a million people. Military aid to Indonesia has been hotly debated in Congress for years.
If the Indonesians are systematically killing or terrorizing civilians, using U.S. - made weapons, we all need to know about it. If the U.S. government is once again aiding Indonesian elites who serve U.S. corporate interests, we all need to know about it. William Nessen may be the man who can tell us more than anyone else.
We can help bring him home safely. His family is urging all Americans to call their Senators and Representatives, asking them to press the State Department to make sure Nessen's safety is guaranteed, in detail. It is especially important to keep Senator Lugar actively on the case. Call him at 202-224-4814, or email him at email@example.com
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org