Ethical Dilemma in Covering Conflict

HOW does journalist convey a truth in conflict zone? Which one do they prefer to, telling the truth due in part of their first duty or obscuring it for the sake of those whose lives are threatened under perilous circumstances?

An old photograph of Dutch army in West Aceh.

No doubt truth is the paramount of journalism principle (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2002). However, stumbling upon such dilemma is always painful. In certain occasion, it is often requiring thoughtful ethical considerations prior to come to ultimate decision.

For the journalists in conflict zone, employing ethical principles is hardly ever black or white. Instead of promoting conflict resolution, the journalist report could make matters worse and ignite another conflict. Thus, there are no absolutes in the ethics of conflict coverage as it has to be depended on the critical considerations and other priorities. And in particular, “it has to be shaped by changing contexts” (Ninan, 2009).

During armed-conflict in Aceh, some of local journalists were not only forced to face the ordeal of intimidation and perilous situation, but also to encounter thorny ethical dilemma. Some are desperately holding the principles of journalism. Others promptly decide to ignore it when they reflect perilous consequences toward civilians or their sources.

Moreover, to tell the truth to the public by employing verification principle is painstaking, horrifying and, sometimes, it is too dangerous. No wonder if the latter is might be the last resort for Aceh journalists as they should put civilian lives in their top priority during the conflict.

Aceh conflict and the journalist challenge

The land of Aceh, northernmost Sumatra, was subjected to military occupation for tens of years. The rebellion movement can be traced since 1870s. At the time Acehnese fought against Indonesia’s Dutch colonizers. It continued when Acehnese struggled to retain a fair amount of autonomy from the central government that took over at Indonesia’s independence in 1949 (Reid, 2006).

In 1976, Hasan Mohammad di Tiro proclaimed the establishment of Free Aceh Movement (or GAM) which lent new vigour to Aceh’s fight for autonomy. For years, GAM fought for Aceh independence against Javanese-Indonesia occupation (Robinson, 1999). Although the Indonesian military claimed to have put down the movement, GAM survived under Tiro’s command whose later living in exile in Sweden.

After the fall of Suharto dictatorship in 1998, some parts of Indonesia demanded for greater autonomy and even independence from the central government. Since 2000, Government of Indonesia launched Martial Law in Aceh. Armed-conflict erupted once again. In 2003, Indonesian government commenced a full-scale military operation and deployed more than 130,000 troops, the largest deployment since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. In addition to deploy thousands of troops across the region, the armed force built military posts in hundreds of villages. The Indonesia military presence was leading to a rise in human rights abuses. The government imposition of the law in Aceh only increased the number of civilian murders, disappearances and cases of torture.

Aceh war has been challenged national and international journalists in order to obtain the truth from the ground. Considering the international impact of the journalist’s reports, Indonesia government prohibited many foreign journalists to enter the region. Number of foreign journalist was detained and forced to leave the country.

Lesley McCulloch, a female-Scottish journalist, was arrested and jailed for five months while reporting on the conflict in Banda Aceh (Hyde, 2008). Meanwhile, William Nessen, an American journalist, was caught by Indonesian troops while covering the military sporadic ambush in villages of North Aceh region. He was forced to leave Aceh ever since.

On the other side, instead of reporting from the ground, voicing the civilian casualties, and upholding cover both side principle, national mainstream media locked in narrow-minded nationalism and disproportion reporting as it mostly quoted Indonesian officials and military ranks (Sudibyo, 2006). As the consequence, either international or national news agencies relied on local journalists report. Despite its duty in perilous zone, the challenges remained excruciating and even dangerous for the journalist.

Female Journalist in Conflict Zone

NANI Afrida, 35, is among the least of local female journalist who has covered Aceh conflict from the ground since 2000. Prior to join The Jakarta Post national daily, she worked as a reporter for Kontras Aceh, a prominence local weekly-tabloid. Its main office is in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province.

During the conflict, Afrida often exposed perilous intimidations and terrors, either directly or indirectly. She also encountered ethical dilemmas while reporting collateral damage. Among other thing was occurred in the late 2000.

She was assigned to cover a rumor that GAM guerillas occupied Idi district in North Aceh regency. Along with her friend who served as humanitarian worker, she went to the village after one day trip by public transportation and passes through several military post guards. The military swept every vehicle which crosses through.

A military post in remote village of North Aceh was burned down during conflict times.

She had to masquerade her identity in order to get through to the village and obtain the truth by assembling and verifying facts. Though the tabloid neither supported GAM nor TNI, at the time it was regarded as a media which affiliated to the guerilla paper. The tabloid often to put the guerilla photos on the front page in order to increase its circulation. Otherwise, if they put TNI’s photos in front cover, the weekly circulation would be dropped.

“Instead of saying that I’m a journalist of Kontras weekly, I told them (the guard officer) that I’m a humanitarian worker. We brought blankets for refugees,” Afrida told me in an interview.

While she arrived at the village, she saw dozen of villager’s houses fell into ruin. Afrida went to mosque in which refugees were gathered. It was the most safety place as the two parties would not burn the local inhabitants’ sacred place. The incident was occurred three days before Afrida’s came.

Afrida conducted depth interview toward victims, witnesses, and head of the villages afterwards. They insisted that their houses were burned down by TNI from special task force. The military has burned the village since they could not find any guerrilla.

At the end of interview, the head of the village and other villagers demanded her to write clearly and based on the facts, testimonies and proofs, including naming the armed force group in detail on the tabloid.

Yet, Afrida had a distinct view on it. She thought the villagers could have another perilous threat even killed if she wrote the perpetrators were TNI as she had bad experience previously when one of her source was kidnapped for weeks after her interview published.

Afrida then asked to the villagers if she could write the perpetrators were “unidentified armed-group” in order to keep them save. The villagers promptly declined her suggestion since they had been lived in between two armed groups.

“What we have now is nothing but our lives. We’re not afraid of the impact. Because the most important is to uncover the truth since it’s been covered up for so long,” another villager responded.

Back to Banda Aceh, Afrida discussed her reportage to Muharram M Nur, her editor. Again, she insisted not to put villagers’ testimonies in detail, including not quoting TNI as the perpetrator, since it could be dangerous for the life of the village population. She preferred to protect the villagers.

Though he agreed to Afrida’s opinion, Nur has different views. He considered the tabloid lives could also be in dangerous situation if they put TNI as the perpetrator since the national government could close down the tabloid in anytime.

Thus they both decided not to quote that the TNI was the perpetrator of the atrocity. Confirming the villagers’ testimony, Nur asked another reporter to interview both armed-groups official regarding the incident. The two armed groups, however, declined their involvement.

The report was written in 3-pages long and it became cover story of the tabloid. The front page contained the burned village. Yet, the truth behind the atrocious incident remains obscured.

Afrida and her editor’s decision seem has downgraded elements of journalism in reporting the atrocity. She disregarded the first elements of journalism. According to Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001), journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. At the same time, Afrida also put aside the second element emphasizing journalists must put their loyalty to greater public (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001).

However, I believe she had put the ninth element on her top priority appropriately in terms of exercising her personal conscience regarding the matter. In addition she unwittingly had exercised Aristotelian theory on mean. It is emphasized on moral virtue which “a middle state determined by practical wisdom” (Christians et. al, page 12).

At the same time, her decision was in line to Mill’s theory on utilitarianism since her particular action to protect the villagers lives in such perilous threat will result in a balance of good over evil. In contrast, if she deliberately to write Indonesia military as the perpetrator, there would be no guarantees that the villagers could survive.

In this context, I believe that saving dozens of villager lives in the mosque are far more significant than telling the truth regardless any consideration of the villager lives (Christians et. al, page 16). Otherwise, it is a reckless decision.

I think it is considerable to notice Christiane Amanpour principle, one of the most admired of CNN foreign correspondents, while reporting Balkan War in early 1990s. She was so sympathetic to the sufferings of the Bosnians refugees.

“In this war, there was no way that a human being or a professional should be neutral. You have to put things in context. For me, objectivity does not mean treating all sides equally; it means giving all sides an equal hearing. It does not mean drawing a moral equivalent for all sides. I refuse to do that because I am going to report honestly.” (Evans, 2006)

Which side do you stand for?

FOR local the journalist in Aceh during conflict times, publishing accurate and reliable facts could be reckoned as enemy for GAM, or Indonesia military, or even both. Instead of promoting conflict resolution, the journalist report could extend the collateral damage.

War of words on a burned down military post.

Fakhrurradzie, 30, is young Acehnese journalist. Radzi, his nickname, works for Acehkita magazine, a monthly magazine during the conflict in the region.

Born and fluent in Aceh had gave him advantageous to get interview from the guerrillas and civilians. He was attempted hardly to keep the principle of his duty as a journalist to expose the victims’ agony. At the mean time, he could penetrate remote area in the purpose to have special interview with guerrilla’s higher field commander.

Those advantageous were also a potent danger either of his career as journalist, his lives, or both. His report was often to spark resentment of each party. The military once sought him since he was considered as anti-patriotism. On another occasion, the guerrillas alleged him as the military mouthpiece.

One day, in mid 2003, there was an ambush toward military vehicles convoy at Simpang Keuramat, North Aceh. A dozen of guerrillas attacked the jeep containing a number of military officers and civilians. Several civilians were dead while other passengers were injured.

Despite the witnesses and military officers, Radzie interviewed local GAM commander, Teungku Jamaika. The commander declined the claim that it was his members who started the attack.

Radzie, however, criticized the commander statements since there were no other armed-groups that would possibly attack the military convoy at the area. He attempted to obtain first-hand witnesses near to the location from the rebel itself. His source told him that it was the guerrillas who started the attack to the convoy. Yet, they did not know if the vehicle carried score of civilians.

Radzie thought the report could lead him into perilous situation as the guerrillas could take him away, even kill him. But in the end, he firmly decided to write the story due in part of his duty as journalist regardless his own lives consideration. Lucky for him, he was leaving to Jakarta for several weeks. In the following week, the magazine published the atrocity. Though the story contains both parties’ statements, it put emphasis on the guerrillas ambush causing the civilians death.

“If I stayed in Aceh at the time, my life story would be totally different,” he said.

Having good relationship with one of the party which engaged in the conflict has put Razie in hostile situation to uphold his principle to be independent from his sources. Despite the benefit, it could also be a potential threat.

Radzie’s judgement to write and publish the guerrilla ambush toward the military vehicles with several civilians is too harmful as the armed-group could also harass him. He preferred to publish the story for the sake of his duty, regardless his own lives. In this situation, he applied Kant’s theory on categorical imperative.

His orientation toward the truth, truthfulness and justice by applying critical thinking toward each party, in particular the guerrillas commander statement, was undoubtedly relevant to the ‘discourse ethics theory’ (Arens, page 56). He tried to expose the truth behind the atrocity which killed civilians.

Though it’s an ideal decision, it might be dangerous in the long run which determines his career and life as local journalist. His fortune to leave Aceh was inevitably a big advance that came through a serendipity.

Mill’s theory on utilitarianism would be best to apply for journalist in such situation prior to determine final judgement. As I believe, journalist lives can never be compared to anything. The list of death of journalists across the globe, which is released by International Federation of Journalist every year, must be considered as an early warning system for journalism practitioners to be effectively prudent. Moreover, I think there will never be any truth without living journalists.

Capturing picture or saving casualty?

DESPITE the lost, Aceh war had portrayed many images of agony, brutality, and sorrow. For some journalists or war correspondents, those are remarkable and historical visuals which could make them famous person or even celebrity. However, for the rest, taking those portraits could be intimidating.

Tarmizy Harva, 37, one of those who suffered such dilemma while doing his duty as international news agency, Reuters, to cover Aceh after the government launched Martial Law, March 2003.

In June, along with his peers, Harva travelled by minivan across a village in Nisam, North Aceh, in order to get stories and pictures. He was informed by local inhabitant there was a young man corpse amidst a palm plantation. He followed his instinct to verify the information with the help of local inhabitant.

Eventually he found the man corpse wearing underwear. It was hung on a palm tree with fully blood from its mouth, chest and feet. Its hands tied up on the back of the tree.

Harva was silence for a few minutes while his peers got the picture from different angle. He could not imagine the real horror image in front of him.

Instead of putting down the corpse immediately, he then took several photos while his peers interviewed the man relatives. He attempted to take from different angles which he thought not so vulgar and horrific. It was mostly from the back of the corpse. But in the end, he took from the front.

“The last photo that I took was merely for documentation as I thought someday it might be needed as an evidence of crime against the law and humanity,” he said.

After taking the photo, he asked the relative to put down and bury the corpse according their belief. The photo was then published in several national newspapers.

In early 2004, the photo was among the list of World Press Photo nominee. Harva’s photo won the Honourable Mention category for Spot News Singles Photo. Yet, few weeks after the competition, Aceh Media Watch bulletin criticized him as an immoral photojournalist.

It was said, as a human being even photographer must prioritize to help the relatives to put down the corpse prior to take the picture. The writer compared Harva’s works to Kevin Carter, the late photojournalist who died in suicide few weeks after he won Pulitzer Prize in 1990’s for his remarkable photo of a child in front of vulture depicting horrific famine in Africa.

“I would not do what Carter did since at that moment my presence was to document the evidence. Anyway I’m not a humanitarian worker,” he insisted.

In this case, Harva seemed to have critical judgement which relevant to Kant’s categorical imperative. Despite portraying the war atrocity towards civilian, his photo is inevitably a concrete evidence of crime against humanity as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Geneva Conventions. A violation of personal integrity occurs when the state, through its employees or any other person acting in an official capacity or at the behest of the state or with its express or tacit consent, inflicts.

“No-one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Article 5 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Harva’s judgement, according to the ‘discourse ethics’ (Arens, page 56), may express his reflection on his journalism duty which is an expression of his humanity and the best contribution he had to make to justice as well as truth (Nieman Reports, 2003).

Moreover, the photos are noteworthy documents when the government of Indonesia establishes either Human Right Court Truth or Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in order to human right abuse during the conflict in Aceh.

On the other hand, his action taking picture of the corpse can be reckoned as inhuman deed. In my view, he should help release the corpse first since there are no humanitarian workers at the time in the location.

The Aristotle’s mean or the Confucius’ Golden Mean theory may be best applied in this context (Christians et. al, page 12-14). Moral virtue should be put on the top of his judgement.

I think he could also notice James Nachtwey, a prominence international war photographer, principles when encountering people in dangerous area who have been wounded, or are about to be attacked. Helping those people is his priority if he is the only one who can, “rather than stands around to make great pictures of this person getting lynched” (Evans, 2006). Otherwise, he does his job as a photojournalist.

Children in Bireuen regency, Aceh, like to play a war game.

The challenge ahead

LIKE many countries in the world, Indonesia has strived far better democracy and economic development. Yet, conflict and human rights violation challenges confront the country. Crimes of communal conflict and abuses of human rights remain continued. For that reason, journalists are being increasingly called upon to cover.

Thus, the challenges require high standard journalism in order to promoting resolution and justice, and enhancing democracy by reporting nothing but the truth. However, in the world of conflict, to obtain the truth is often painstaking, time consuming, and, sometimes, it is too dangerous. In such circumstance, Hiram Warren Johnson famous word is definitely true. “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

Yet, as I believe, for the journalists in dangerous area or combat zone, employing ethical principles is hardly ever black or white. There are no absolutes in the ethics of conflict coverage as it has to be depended on the critical considerations and other priorities.

Therefore, in addition to implement basic principles of journalism, the practitioners must adhere to ethical values in order to reach ethical judgment. As the result, those who abide by certain standard of professionalism and attempted to provide accurate reporting based on ethical principles will be gained a greater professional satisfaction and greater public trust (ICJ, 2003).  ***


  • Arens, E. Discourse Ethics and Its Relevance for Communication and Media Ethics”. Communication Ethics and Universal Values, pp. 46-64.
  • Christians, C., Fackler, M., Rotzoll, K. B., Mckee, & K. B. Ethical Foundations and Perspectives” in Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning: pp 12-20.
  • Harold Evans. (2006). Reporting in the time of conflict; An Essay. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from
  • Hyde, J. (2008). When a Few Dollars Make a Big Difference. Nieman Reports, Spring 2008. Retrieved October 7, 2009, from
  • International Center of Journalist. (2003). Journalism Ethics: The Global Debate. Washington DC: US Embassy.
  • Kovach, B & Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The Elements of Journalism; What Newspeople Should Know and The Public Should Expect. New York: Crown Publishers.
  • Reid, A. (2006). Verandah of Violence; The Background to the Aceh Problem. Singapore: NUS Publishing.
  • Robinson, G. (1999). Rawan is as Rawan Does: The Origins of Disorder in New Order Aceh. Indonesia: p. 127-156.
  • Sudibyo, A. (2001). Politik Media dan Pertarungan Wacana. Yogyakarta: LKiS.
  • Ninan, S. The ethics of conflict coverage. InfoChange News & Features, February 2009. Retrieved October 3, 2009, from


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2 responses to “Ethical Dilemma in Covering Conflict

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