Billy Nessen set free
International pressure – with the Chron playing only a minor role – helps spring war correspondent with Bay Area ties

By A.C. Thompson

After 40 days in an Indonesian jail, American journalist William "Billy" Nessen is free and on his way back to the States. A former Berkeley resident, Nessen, 46, was working as a stringer for the San Francisco Chronicle when he was arrested last month in Aceh, an Indonesian province wracked by a long-running civil war between separatist guerrillas and government troops.

Charged with violating the terms of his journalist visa, Nessen was convicted Aug. 2 of flouting a government-imposed ban on covering the war and sentenced to 40 days behind bars – a symbolic sentence, since the journo had already been incarcerated for 39 days. Nessen was also barred from returning to the country for one year. He had been facing up to five years in prison, and military officials had even floated the idea of trying him on espionage charges, obviously a much more serious crime.

Nessen's supporters credited international pressure – which came in the form of letters to the Indonesian government and face-to-face meetings with Indonesian officials here and in Jakarta – with securing his release. "I'm very grateful to all the friends, family, and Bay Area journalists who helped win his freedom," said Bradley Angel, a San Francisco environmentalist who has known Nessen since the 1980s. At press time Nessen was reported to be in Thailand reuniting with his wife and seeking treatment for kidney stones.

Even though he's free, some in the Bay Area are wondering why the Chronicle's defense of Nessen was so lame. Other than running a series of short stories and a single editorial on his plight, the Chron didn't do a hell of a lot on his behalf. According to executive foreign and national editor Andrew Ross, the paper lobbied the Indonesian government and the U.S. diplomatic delegation via letters and stayed in regular contact with Nessen's family and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. One Chron missive obtained by the Bay Guardian called on Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri "to work for Nessen's release" and to "allow him to leave the country as soon as possible."

But where was Phil?

The goateed face of the paper, executive editor Phil Bronstein, an opinionated, high-profile guy who generally can't stay out of the headlines, was content to remain in the background on this one. He didn't make the talk show rounds or call a press conference to vigorously denounce the charges against Nessen. And the paper didn't bother covering the local movement of reporters and activists who were lobbying for Nessen's release, or mention all of the Web sites featuring info on his case (such as www.cpj.org).

Perhaps Bronstein was reticent because Indonesian military leaders started accusing Nessen of being a "spy" for the separatist rebels in the Asian press. (Apparently, those charges were bogus since the reporter wasn't tried for espionage.) Or maybe, as some in journalism circles have suggested, Nessen was a low priority because he's a freelancer who only filed a handful of stories for the paper.

Bronstein did not return Bay Guardian calls seeking comment.

"It's shocking that they haven't raised the issue more prominently," said Jeff Perlstein, executive director of Media Alliance, a local organization of journalists and media workers. "This is something that cuts right to the core of what it means to be a journalist and investigate issues."

At the Los Angeles Times, deputy foreign editor Mary Braswell has experience with crisis situations. In January two Times freelancers were kidnapped in Colombia by leftist guerrillas. In response, the paper flew its Mexico City bureau chief to Bogotá to try to personally negotiate the release of the reporters.

"Our newspaper did all we could for the freelancers who were on assignment for us," Braswell said, though she was careful not to criticize Bronstein's low-profile tack, saying she wasn't familiar with the details of the Nessen case.

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August 6, 2003