Concerns escalate after deaths of Indonesian environmental journalists

Two environmental journalists have died in suspicious circumstances since late July, following the publication of a report on illegal logging in Indonesia and elsewhere.

TheIndonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) reported on the mysterious death of Mohamed Syaifullah on 24 July. He was found dead at his rented house in Balikpapan, Borneo, his body slumped in front of the television. Police found a glass of syrup near the body and foam around his mouth. Local journalists believe he was poisoned, casting doubt on an autopsy report that showed he died from a brain haemorrhage caused by diabetes and hypertension, ailments from which his family claims he has never suffered.

Mohamed Syafullah was the head of the Borneo bureau of Kompas, the biggest daily in Indonesia. He was a well-known journalist who has written extensively and critically about illegal logging practices in Indonesia and other environmental matters.

A few days later the body of a second journalist, Ardiansyah Matra'is was found in the River Gudang Arand with his arm tied to a tree, apparently to prevent his body from floating downstream, as reported by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI).

Matra’is had written a series of articles for Jubi magazine about illegal logging by local military officers, and had taken photos of their operations. He was then kidnapped by soldiers who threatened to kill his family members if he continued his work. According to the IPI, in the days leading up to his death he had been receiving threatening text messages.

Reporters Without Borders commenting on the case, said that, "Matra'is's death seems to confirm the dangers of covering deforestation in Indonesia."

The report that is believed to have provoked the two cases is entitled “Deforestation and Pollution, High-Risk Subjects” and was released on 3 June 2010 by Reporters Without Borders. It highlights the increase in attacks on journalists and bloggers reporting on environmental issues, in particular those who investigate industrial pollution and the destruction of forests.

Some of the incidents mentioned in the report took place in Indonesia, Argentina, El Salvador, Gabon, India, Azerbaijan, China and Morocco and the culprits are usually big corporations, criminal gangs or government officials corrupted by money from mining or logging.

Threats and attacks on journalists working on environmental issues in Indonesia are not uncommon. In a recent incident in Indonesia Ahmadi, a journalist working in Aceh province, was assaulted and his life was threatened by an army officer after investigating alleged links between the military and logging. Ahmadi was forced to go into hiding fearing for his life.

Ahmadi was quoted in the Indonesian national press expressing his concerns, “I want justice to be done. I want my assailant to be tried before a civilian court. I also request protection for my family and myself during and after the trial (…) I am still worried.”

In the province of Papua, journalists have been receiving threatening text messages in the run-up to local elections due to take place in August and September. One message said: "Journalists and cowards, never play with fire if you don't want to get burned. If you still want to make a living in this land, don't do strange things. We have information on all of you. Be prepared for death." Another letter allegedly written in blood was posted outside the home of a reporter for the daily Bintang Papua.

In a recent report, the AJI documented 40 cases of violence against journalists including 12 instances of brutal assault in the last 12 months alone. The report also notes how Indonesian journalists face censorship from local government officials, legal repression through defamation cases, and regular confiscation of equipment.

Many reporters have voiced concern over recent developments, particularly in light of the fact that the international media has so far remained silent.

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