Freelance journalist Billy Nessen has made a career out of reporting from international war zones—chronicling the stark poverty, the brutal regimes and the attacks on civilians as if he lived in a real-world version of The Year of Living Dangerously. But this is no movie.
Nessen now sits in a scorching-hot jail cell, facing charges that could leave him in an Indonesian prison for up to six years or, possibly, even get him executed for espionage, simply for trying to get at the truth.
Nessen, who lived in Berkeley for many years and has close friends in the Sacramento region, has been charged with “immigration violations.” But the reporter’s true crime was reporting on the alleged atrocities being committed in Aceh, Indonesia, located on the westernmost island in Indonesia. He especially irked authorities by traveling as a reporter with the Free Aceh Movement of guerillas.
Nessen was given a June 14 deadline to turn himself in to the army for interrogation. At first, he did not comply. He told The Sydney Morning Herald he feared “being shot, tortured, beaten and arrested and held indefinitely in a black hole.” But after being hunted down throughout the course of two weeks, he surrendered on June 24 and is now being interrogated and held in a jail cell. Some reports indicate that Nessen may have been suffering from malaria at the time of his capture.
Officials in the ruling regime believe that Nessen supported the guerillas and was not acting in his capacity as a journalist when he traveled with the rebels. But that’s not the case. Nessen, who earned a master’s at Columbia journalism school in New York, is a professional reporter. He’s written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and plenty of other mainstream and alternative papers. He won awards for his coverage of the repression in East Timor.
Journalists across the country are paying close attention to his case. That’s because Nessen is not the only reporter to suffer such a fate. In fact, the Inter American Press Association reports that 272 journalists have been murdered in North and South America since 1998, mostly because they did what Nessen did, what journalists in foreign lands are supposed to do—dare to get into a war zone and tell the truth about the cruel regimes and the destitution of the people caught in the middle.
So far, the Indonesian army has refused U.S. Embassy requests to ensure Nessen’s safe passage out of Indonesia. But that can change if the pressure is amplified. Nessen’s trial will begin this week. You can help him by contacting the Indonesian embassy and the other individuals mentioned above. Please join us in the campaign to free fellow journalist Billy Nessen.