Forced to Turn a Blind Eye to a Massacre in Plain Sight

BANGKOK—When machete-wielding thugs set upon journalists in East Timor after the territory’s Aug. 30 vote for independence, it looked like another gruesome case of the press caught between warring sides. Deplorable, yes, but it comes with the territory if you choose to cover the front lines in conflict zones.

Look again. Something far more cynical is at work this time. The Indonesian government —or at some command level, the military—has used armed gangs to rid East Timor of witnesses to the terror to come.

With few exceptions, the press corps covering East Timor has now been evacuated. And when you remove the press from a story, you remove the world’s eyes. As atrocities continue, we are prevented from seeing, learning and judging the scope of the tragedy.

The damage to Indonesia’s credibility and its fragile democracy is incalculable. Since former President Suharto stepped aside last year, Asians and many others have watched in amazement as the Indonesian media blossomed with a vibrancy that seemed to dissipate the dark shadows of Mr. Suharto’s New Order regime.

East Timor demonstrates that the shadows remain. If armed gangs can hound out the international press in a small, disputed territory, how might such forces behave in a larger crisis, such as the one now building over the National Parliament’s selection of a president in November?

There were no casualties among the correspondents covering East Timor. While that is a relief, it also looks like part of the larger plan. It is evident enough that those supporting the gangs concluded that a correspondent’s death would create too big a problem.

Dozens of journalists have testified that the military and police not only watched gun-toting terrorists pummel correspondents and invade hotels; they also intervened to see that the beatings stopped short of lethal force.

This indicates a high degree of control over supposedly uncontrollable thugs.

When the BBC’s Jonathan Head suffered a broken arm the day after the vote, other reporters at the scene saw a man quietly step into the fray with the words, “That’s enough.”

James Hutchison, a Reuters Television correspondent, watched about 400 soldiers and police officers do nothing when a militia member opened fire on the last functioning hotel in East Timor, the Mahkota. The terrorist aimed at satellite dishes and microwave uplink facilities on the hotel’s roof. “It would seem it was pure intimidation to get us out of East Timor,” Mr. Hutchison said afterward. “And it worked.”

Jakarta’s calculation that the press can be harassed out of the picture speaks volumes about its lack of commitment to democratic institutions and the democratic process. This underscores the international community’s responsibilities, since the UN sponsored the East Timor referendum.

Any peacekeepers sent to the territory now must include media protection among their duties. President B.J. Habibie must be called to task for attempting to blind the world.

The writer, a correspondent in Southeast Asia for many years, is a consultant in Asia to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune

(From The International Herald Tribune, September 11, 1999. Reprinted by permission)