Attacks on the Press 1999: East Timor

In August, as East Timor prepared to vote on whether to declare independence from Indonesia, military-backed, pro-Indonesia militias threatened, harassed and physically assaulted journalists covering the disputed territory. The attacks began shortly after the announcement in March of a United Nations-brokered agreement to hold an August 30 referendum on the independence issue.

The Indonesian military was bitterly opposed to the referendum, having occupied the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and fought a protracted war against independence. On April 17, following an escalating series of threats, rampaging militia members sacked the offices of Suara Timor Timur (“The Voice of East Timor”), the territory’s only daily newspaper. The paper was shut down for more than two weeks, and many of its employees were driven into hiding. At about the same time, foreign journalists in East Timor began to face threats and beatings from the militias.

Protests by CPJ and other international organizations were rebuffed by the government of then-President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. During May meetings with a CPJ representative in Indonesia, both Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Information Minister Mohamad Yunus insisted that the Indonesian government had no control over the militias in East Timor. Both officials also denied that the attacks on journalists were linked to the Indonesian military, despite ample press reports to the contrary. “It is unfair and untruthful to say that the Indonesian military is behind these groups or arming them,” Alatas told CPJ. “There are hundreds of journalists going to East Timor. We have been telling them, ÔYou should know where you are. Don’t think you are above the fray.’ I believe some journalists have been very active in East Timor and they cannot avoid being attacked. It is a situation of conflict. These journalists should know they are in harm’s way.”

In late August, the pace and fury of attacks on the press in East Timor intensified as the date of the referendum neared. Hotels housing foreign journalists were ransacked, and dozens of journalists were beaten. After the vote, which overwhelmingly supported independence for East Timor, daily assaults on journalists by the militia became routine. Indonesian soldiers refused to intervene to stop the attacks, and it became impossible for journalists to continue working in East Timor. Rampaging militia members ransacked the offices of Suara Timor Timur and shut down the territory’s two functioning radio stations. The military told Indonesian journalists to evacuate the area for their own safety.

By September 2, there were virtually no reporters left in the territory. The handful who stayed behind sought shelter in the United Nations compound in Dili. When the UN announced the result of the referendum on September 3, there were no functioning East Timorese media left to carry the story. The militia killed independence supporters, burned Dili to the ground and drove the majority of the Timorese population into hiding, but the frenzy of violence went largely unseen by the outside world. It seemed clear that journalists had been silenced or chased out as part of a deliberate military strategy to hide the worst of the destruction.

On September 20, an Australian-led peacekeeping force entered East Timor, and journalists began to return. The situation remained extremely dangerous, however. Dutch free-lance reporter Sander Thoenes, who covered Indonesia for The Financial Times and The Christian Science Monitor, was shot dead outside Dili on September 22, as he fled on the back of a motorcycle from a group of armed men in military uniforms. United Nations investigators concluded that soldiers from Indonesian army battalion 745 were most likely responsible for Thoenes’s murder.

Battalion 745 soldiers are also prime suspects in the September 25 murder of Agus Muliawan, an Indonesian journalist working for the Japanese news agency Asia Press International, who was massacred along with eight others in the village of Lospalos. In this same period, several other journalists were attacked and narrowly missed being killed.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described Thoenes as “an outstanding young journalist” and said he was deeply shocked by the killing. Annan added that Thoenes “faced danger from those who wished to hide the truth of the existence of their crimes. It was largely thanks to the courage and determination of men and women like him that these horrors and their perpetrators are brought to the attention of the world conscience.”

Although many Indonesian journalists suffered beatings and threats at the hands of the militias in East Timor, much of the Indonesian press seemed to accept the military’s version of events in the territory. In the weeks following the arrival of the Australian-led peacekeeping forces, Indonesian media fueled anti-foreign sentiment with unsourced stories that accused Australia of planning to invade Indonesia. The local press also alleged that Australian peacekeepers had committed atrocities against militia members in East Timor; these allegations were never documented or corroborated.

With the UN administering the territory in the transition period before full independence, international agencies are currently playing some role in helping East Timorese media rebuild. Among other challenges, local media were very short of office space. Most buildings in East Timor were destroyed during September’s scorched-earth campaign, and there was virtually no functioning infrastructure left in the country at year’s end. In December, East Timorese journalists announced plans to open two daily newspapers, and some radio coverage was being provided by the UN and the Catholic Church.

February 24
Jose Alberto Carvalho, SIC Television ATTACKED
Jose Maria Cyrni, SIC Television ATTACKED

Portuguese journalists Carvalho, a reporter for the privately owned SIC television station, and Cyrni, a cameraman for the same station, were assaulted by a pro-government mob in Dili. The two were in the East Timorese capital’s Becora district, reporting on violent clashes that erupted when pro-Indonesia militia soldiers fired on independence supporters during a funeral procession.

Their assailants destroyed at least one camera and mobile phone, threatened the journalists at gunpoint, and beat both severely before taking them to Becora police headquarters. Carvalho and Cyrni were reportedly well-treated by police, who turned them over to a pro-independence group that had gathered outside the police station to escort them to safety.

In an April 19 letter to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ documented a number of attacks against journalists working in East Timor, and urged the Indonesian government to guarantee their safety.

February 25
Australian journalists THREATENED

In a faxed warning sent to various news agencies during Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer’s visit to Indonesia, two pro-integration militia leaders declared that it was “better to sacrifice an Australian diplomat or journalist to save the lives of 850,000 East Timorese.” The one-page statement noted that East Timor was “a victim of the dirty game by Australian myopic and deceitful journalists,” and was signed by Cancio Lopes de Carvalho and Eurico Guterres, commanders of the Mahidi and Aitarak militias respectively.

In its April 19 letter to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ mentioned this incident in the context of a series of attacks against journalists by militia groups, and urged his administration to punish those responsible for the violence.

March 26
Suara Timor Timur THREATENED

About 20 members of the pro-Jakarta paramilitary group Mahidi stormed into the offices of the newspaper Suara Timor Timur (STT) and threatened to burn down the building as punishment for the newspaper’s allegedly antagonistic reporting. Although STT gave space to both pro-Jakarta and pro-independence voices, militia members accused the newspaper’s staff of stirring conflict.

One month earlier, Mahidi commander Cancio Lopes de Carvalho and the head of the Aitarak militia had issued a joint statement threatening to kill Australian journalists for their allegedly biased reporting in favor of independence for East Timor.

In its April 19 letter to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ asked him to intervene with Indonesian army and police forces stationed in East Timor, who were believed to be aiding the militias responsible for a series of attacks against journalists.

April 9
John Aglionby, The Guardian THREATENED, HARASSED
Jenny Grant, South China Morning Post THREATENED, HARASSED

Aglionby, Southeast Asia correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, and Grant, Jakarta-based correspondent for the South China Morning Post, were threatened and harassed by members of the pro-Indonesian Besi Merah Putih militia, when they visited the town of Liquica. Aglionby and Grant were investigating the April 6 massacre of at least 25 villagers on church grounds in Liquica.

Two militia members spotted the journalists on the outskirts of town, and eventually managed to overtake their car. Armed with swords, they threatened to set the car on fire and assault the driver if he did not immediately transport the journalists back to Dili, East Timor’s capital. The militiamen escorted the journalists’ car back out of Liquica on motorbikes, and blocked it from entering the Liquica police station, where Aglionby and Grant had hoped to file a complaint. In plain sight of police standing nearby on the station’s verandah, the militia members screamed at the driver to turn around, and repeated their earlier threats. Because police made no move to guarantee the safety of the journalists or their driver, they were forced to retreat.

In its April 19 letter to Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ noted his administration’s responsibility to ensure that the police protect civilians from harm at the hands of paramilitary groups sponsored by the Indonesian military.

April 11
John Aglionby, The Guardian ATTACKED
Jenny Grant, South China Morning Post ATTACKED
Jorge Pinto, Jornal de Noticias ATTACKED
Leonel Castro, Jornal de Noticias ATTACKED
Emmanuel Dunand, Agence France-Presse ATTACKED

Some two dozen members of the pro-Jakarta Besi Merah Putih militia attacked a convoy of journalists returning from the town of Liquica, where at least 25 villagers had been massacred on church grounds on April 6. The journalists were on their way back from covering a mass held by East Timorese Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo at the site of the killings.

Aglionby, Southeast Asia correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, reported that a large rock crashed through the windshield of his car, narrowly missing his head, and that “this was immediately followed by a three-foot metal pipe that came through the hole made by the stone and grazed my back.”

The mob struck at the cars with swords, machetes, and iron bars. Grant, Jakarta-based correspondent for the South China Morning Post; her husband, Kurnow, a producer for the U.S. television news network CNBC; Pinto and Castro, correspondents for the Portuguese newspaper Jornal de Noticias; and Dunand, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, were also among those attacked.

Police accompanying the convoy did not intervene to protect the journalists. Some journalists involved in the incident preferred not to be identified because they feared for their safety.

In its April 19 letter to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ warned that pro-Jakarta militias were increasingly targeting journalists perceived as favoring independence for East Timor.

April 17

On the same day that pro-Indonesia militia members led a rampage across Dili, killing at least 20 people, members of the Indonesian army-backed Besi Merah Putih militia attacked and gutted the Dili offices of Suara Timor Timur (STT), shutting down East Timor’s only local newspaper.

Militia members reportedly arrived in trucks and fired guns outside STT‘s offices. Militiamen wielding sticks and iron bars then battered down the door to the building and smashed STT‘s computers, printing equipment, fax machines, and telephones. Newspaper staff fled the offices; no journalists were injured in the attack.

Journalists at STT had been receiving constant threats from pro-Indonesia militia members, who felt the paper was biased in favor of East Timor’s independence from Indonesia. STT‘s editorial policy was to feature views from both sides of the conflict.

In its April 19 letter to President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ documented a series of attacks against journalists in East Timor, and urged the president to control the paramilitary groups responsible for most of the violence. CPJ also noted that in several instances, the Indonesian army and police showed at least tacit complicity by failing to stop the militias from threatening and even killing those who disagreed with their views.

STT resumed publishing in May, after securing funds to start replacing newsroom equipment.

April 17
Bernard Estrade, Agence France-Presse THREATENED, ATTACKED, HARASSED
Marie-Pierre Verot, free-lancer THREATENED, ATTACKED, HARASSED
Gerrit de Boer, Volkskrant THREATENED, HARASSED
Dermott O’Sullivan, The Banker THREATENED, HARASSED

Pro-Jakarta militias rampaged through the streets of Dili, killing at least 20 people. In one of the most serious attacks in the city that day, more than 100 militia members stormed the house of a prominent separatist leader and former member of parliament, Manuel José Carrascalao, and attacked nearly 150 refugees who had sought shelter there. Four journalists were caught in the attack.

Estrade, Jakarta bureau chief for the news agency Agence France-Presse, and Verot, a Jakarta-based free-lance reporter for several major French news outlets, were inside Carrascalao’s home when the militiamen forced their way in. They were pushed, beaten, and threatened at gunpoint, while some militia members chanted that the journalists should be killed.

De Boer, Jakarta-based correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, and O’Sullivan, a correspondent for the British magazine The Banker, witnessed the attack from outside the house. Three militiamen surrounded de Boer and O’Sullivan, threatened to kill them, and ultimately forced them to leave the area.

Meanwhile, other militia members rescued Estrade and Verot and escorted them back to their hotel. Minutes after they were dropped off, the journalists were visited in their hotel lobby by a man they suspect was from the Indonesian army-backed Besi Merah Putih militia. Accompanied by four men armed with sticks and iron bars, he asked the journalists to hand over their notes, tape recorders, and cameras. Estrade refused to surrender his belongings, but showed the man his accreditation card, issued by the Indonesian government, and gave him his business card. The five men then left the hotel without harming the two journalists.

In its April 19 letter to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ documented these incidents along with several other attacks against journalists reporting in East Timor. CPJ called on Habibie to curb the paramilitary groups responsible for much of the violence, and to order Indonesian police and military to guarantee the safety of journalists reporting in the territory.

August 23
Amy Goodman, Pacifica Radio EXPELLED

Customs officials stopped Goodman, host of the U.S.-based Pacifica Radio network’s program “Democracy Now!,” at Bali’s Ngurah Rai international airport, preventing her from traveling on to East Timor to cover the territory’s August 30 vote on independence. Goodman was told that she had been blacklisted by the Ministry of Defense, and was put on board a Taipei-bound plane.

The airport officials showed Goodman her name on a computer screen and in a book containing the names of “hundreds if not thousands” of others on the government’s “blacklist,” according to a statement released by WBAI in New York, where “Democracy Now!” is produced.

Goodman has been covering East Timor for nearly a decade. In November 1991, she was beaten by Indonesian soldiers who objected to her covering the army’s massacre of scores of East Timorese demonstrators in the Santa Cruz cemetery. She was subsequently placed on the government’s blacklist. Though she did manage to enter Indonesia in late 1994 during U.S. president Bill Clinton’s meeting with then-president Suharto, she was detained on November 12 while trying to enter East Timor along with her colleague Allan Nairn, a free-lance writer on assignment for the American magazine Vanity Fair. Goodman and Nairn were held overnight in West Timor and then flown back to Jakarta.

In an August 25 letter to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ noted that the expulsion of Goodman violated the administration’s pledges to lift restrictions on foreign journalists and to ensure that international observers, including media representatives, were allowed free access to East Timor during the historic referendum.

August 25
John Stanmeyer, Time THREATENED
Heriyanto, Time THREATENED

Time correspondent Stanmeyer and his Indonesian assistant Heriyanto (who, like many Indonesians, is known by only one name) were attacked by members of the anti-independence Aitarak militia outside the group’s headquarters in Dili.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., the two men drove past Aitarak’s main office. Seeing a group of some 50 armed men, most of whom wore the militia’s trademark black t-shirts, Stanmeyer stopped and began taking pictures. Militia members demanded that the two journalists leave. When Stanmeyer refused, one of the Aitarak militiamen pulled a knife. Heriyanto negotiated with the man and persuaded him not to stab anybody.

August 26
David Longstreath, Associated Press ATTACKED
David Copeland, Associated Press Television News ATTACKED
Bea Wiharta, Reuters ATTACKED
Kornelius Kewa Ama Khayam, Kompas ATTACKED
Jaka, Antara news agency ATTACKED
Marianne Kearney, The Canberra Times ATTACKED
Tjitske Lingsma, The Irish Times ATTACKED

During the weeks surrounding Indonesia’s August 30 referendum on the future of East Timor, numerous journalists were singled out for attack. The vast majority of the attacks were apparently committed by pro-Jakarta militias backed by the Indonesian military.

On August 26, at least seven journalists were attacked during violent clashes between pro-independence and pro-integration groups in Dili, in which five people were killed and dozens injured throughout the city. Following a large pro-Jakarta rally, hundreds of Indonesian-army-backed militias rampaged through the streets.

Associated Press photographer David Longstreath and Associated Press Television News cameraman David Copeland were assaulted by pro-Jakarta militants near the sports stadium where the rally was being held. Neither journalist was injured, though their camera gear was damaged.

Following the rally, scores of young men left a motorcade and stormed through two villages near Dili. One of the militiamen shot at a group of journalists, hitting Bea Wiharta, an Indonesian photographer working for Reuters, in the thigh. A photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald was beaten during the same incident.

Khayam, a reporter for Kompas, Indonesia’s leading daily newspaper, was grazed in the leg by a bullet during a violent clash between pro-independence and pro-integration groups in Dili. Five more bullets were deflected by the bullet-proof vest he was wearing at the time, according to an article in the Jakarta Post.

Unidentified assailants also beat Khayam and set his motorcycle ablaze. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment and later evacuated from the territory. Jaka, a reporter for Indonesia’s state-owned Antara news agency, sustained bruises when he was attacked during the same clash.

An estimated 150 heavily armed, anti-independence Aitarak militia members surrounded an Indonesian military truck in Dili where Kearney, a reporter with The Canberra Times, had sought refuge along with several other journalists. According to Kearney, the militia members chanted, “Kill them all, we want to kill the Australian journalists.”

Because Australian journalists were thought to be pro-independence, they were a particular focus of militia anger during the weeks surrounding Indonesia’s August 30 referendum on the future of East Timor. Armed police finally convinced the militias to leave Kearney and the others alone, and escorted the journalists to safety.

Lingsma, meanwhile, was kicked in the ribs and threatened with a hand grenade after witnessing the execution-style shooting of an unarmed man on the street by a policeman.

In a September 1 letter to Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ urged him to disarm the militias immediately and ensure the safety of all journalists working in East Timor.

August 30
Panca, Lorosae Radio ATTACKED

Arsonists burned down the house of Panca (who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name), an Indonesian reporter for the local East Timor station Lorosae Radio. The attack apparently came in retaliation for the station’s reports about violence perpetrated by armed pro-Jakarta militias, along with the Indonesian police and army, during the campaign period.

On August 28, Panca had attended a press conference held in Dili by the Indonesian group Independent Committee for Direct Ballot Monitoring, or KIPER, to release its findings on campaign abuses. His station aired tape of the press conference several times over the next two days.

Soon afterward, the reporter began receiving threatening telephone calls, apparently in response to these broadcasts. At about 1:00 a.m. on August 30, an unidentified man asked Panca’s neighbors to confirm the location of the journalist’s house. Two hours later, the house went up in flames. Panca and his family escaped without injury, but their belongings were destroyed in the blaze.

In a September 1 letter to Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ urged him to disarm the militias immediately and ensure the safety of all journalists working in East Timor.

September 1
Jonathan Head, BBC ATTACKED

In violence outside the UN headquarters in Dili, several journalists were assaulted, including BBC reporter Jonathan Head, who was nearly killed when he fell trying to flee the violence. A militia member first kicked him in the skull, and then hit him twice with his rifle butt. The Associated Press reported that Head was also “attacked by one man who threw a large rock at him and pulled a knife on him.” Head was luckily escorted to safety, according to a Press Association News report, but he noted that though “the military are very well-armed…they just stood by and did nothing while this mayhem was erupting.”

In a September 1 letter to Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ urged him to disarm the militias immediately and ensure the safety of all journalists working in East Timor.

September 14
Allan Nairn, free-lancer IMPRISONED, EXPELLED

At around 5:30 a.m., American free-lance reporter Nairn was stopped by Indonesian military officers at a checkpoint in Dili and taken into custody. Nairn has covered East Timor for several U.S. news media, including the political weekly The Nation and Pacifica Radio’s current affairs program “Democracy Now!”

Nairn, who communicated with colleagues in the United States via cellular phone while in detention, said he was interrogated by Indonesian police and army officers, including Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, who was put in charge of Indonesian military operations in East Timor when martial law was declared there on September 7.

On September 15, a military jet flew Nairn to Kupang, West Timor, where local authorities threatened to prosecute him for “engaging in unauthorized activities.” Nairn’s name appeared on the Indonesian armed forces’ “blacklist” of foreign journalists barred from reporting in Indonesia.

CPJ sent letters to Indonesia’s President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie on September 14 and on September 17, urging him to order Nairn’s immediate release. On September 19, Nairn was flown to Bali. He was deported to Singapore the following day.

September 21
Jon Swain, The Sunday Times ATTACKED
Chip Hires, Gamma ATTACKED

A car carrying British journalist Swain and American photojournalist Hires was attacked by militiamen on the morning of September 21, three miles outside the capital, Dili. Both journalists escaped the attack unharmed and were rescued by UN peacekeepers.

Later that day, Sander Thoenes, a Dutch free-lance reporter, was killed in the same area. A UN investigation concluded that soldiers from Indonesian army battalion 745 were likely responsible for both attacks.

Swain, an award-winning correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, and Hires, a photographer for the Paris-based Gamma agency, were traveling with a Timorese driver and a Timorese translator when militia ambushed their car near the suburbs of Becora.

The militiamen pulled the two Timorese from the car and attacked them, according to Richard Caseby of The Sunday Times. Swain and Hires fled from the car into nearby bushes, where they hid. Swain then called The Sunday Times on his cellular phone. UN ground troops and a helicopter were deployed to rescue the journalists.

CPJ condemned the attacks in a September 22 letter to Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie.

September 21
Sander Thoenes, free-lancer KILLED

The body of Thoenes, 30, a Dutch free-lance reporter on assignment for The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Dutch newspaper Vrij Nederland, was found on the morning of September 22 by UN forces in the Dili suburb of Becora, where Indonesian military and anti-independence militia forces had been active.

Thoenes was shot dead on the evening of September 21, when his motorcycle taxi attempted to escape a group of armed men blocking the road, according to investigators with the United Nations civilian police force in East Timor. Eyewitnesses, including Thoenes’s Timorese driver, Florindo da Conceicao Araujo, told investigators that six gunmen wearing Indonesian army uniforms shot at the motorcycle, causing it to crash. Araujo said he fled when he saw that the gunmen were preparing to fire again. He last saw Thoenes lying in the middle of the street.

Australian peacekeepers discovered Thoenes’s body the next morning. Investigators determined that he was most likely murdered by members of Indonesian army battalion 745, the same unit believed to have killed Agus Muliawan, a reporter for the Tokyo-based news agency Asia Press International, who was murdered along with eight church workers on September 25. Thoenes died of a gunshot wound through the back, but his killers had also sliced off his left ear and made several cuts in his face, according to a coroner’s report released on January 27, 2000. The mutilation is reportedly a signature of the 745 battalion.

Thoenes, a seasoned journalist who had experience working in East Timor and Indonesia, is believed to be the first foreign reporter killed in Indonesia since 1975, when five Australia-based reporters were killed during the Indonesian military invasion of East Timor.

In September 22 and September 30 letters to Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ documented Thoenes’ murder and emphasized that the Indonesian government was responsible for guaranteeing public security in East Timor, including that of journalists. CPJ also noted the Indonesian military’s role in aiding militias responsible for the violence against journalists and other civilians in East Timor.

September 25
Agus Muliawan, Asia Press International KILLED

Muliawan, a reporter for the Tokyo-based news agency Asia Press International, was massacred along with eight others on September 25. He was traveling with a Catholic aid group en route to Baucau from Lospalos, East Timor. Initial reports indicated that the gunmen were either Indonesian army regulars or army-backed militia members.

Muliawan, 26, had been in Dili since February, working on a television documentary about Falintil, the largest East Timorese guerrilla group favoring independence from Indonesia. The journalist was Balinese, and had established working relationships with many Indonesian military officials.

Muliawan was traveling by van with a group that included the head of the Caritas Roman Catholic aid agency, two students from a local seminary, two nuns, two assistants to the nuns and a driver, according to Western news reports. The gunmen apparently attacked the group at a roadblock after nightfall in the town of Com, as they drove from Lospalos, where they had been on a humanitarian mission, to Baucau. The bodies of Muliawan and the other victims were found in the van, which had been pushed into the Raomoko River, 38 miles from Baucau.

In December 1999, an investigation team coordinated by the United Nations identified and detained several soldiers from Indonesian army battalion 745 as likely suspects. Some of the soldiers were arrested in Dili while others were handed over by Falintil troops who had captured them at the scene of the massacre. (See September 21 case.)