Attacks on the Press 2000: East Timor

EMERGING FROM DARKNESS AND DEVASTATION, East Timor’s journalists took their first steps toward building an independent press for the fledgling nation. The leaders of the new country have pledged to promote press freedom after they achieve formal independence (expected by the end of 2001). “We have no intention to interfere in any way with the press: it must be independent of government,” Nobel laureate and East Timor political leader Jose Ramos Horta told CPJ in May.

Meanwhile, the country remains under the administrative guidance of the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET).

The brutal rampage by the Indonesian military and their militia allies that followed East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999 left behind no functioning printing presses, hardly any usable office space, and no stocks of paper or other supplies in the territory. East Timor’s sole daily newspaper, Suara Timor Timur, was sacked and burned.

Two newspapers and four magazines were launched in 2000, initially relying on photocopiers and a few computers to produce limited, hand-distributed editions. When the journalists ran out of toner for the copiers, they often had to suspend publication and wait days for supplies to reach the capital, Dili, from Australia. With help from UNTAET, a printing consortium began operations late in the year, using refurbished equipment that the Indonesians had abandoned. Since then, local media have been able to publish regularly.

A public hungry for news and information relied heavily on Radio UNTAET, the voice of the interim UN administration. Two private stations, one owned by the Catholic Church and the other affiliated with the resistance movement that had opposed Indonesian rule, were also broadcasting throughout the year.

In addition, Suara Timor Timur reopened in July as the daily Suara Timor Lorosae. Journalists also formed the Timor Lorosae Journalists Association, an independent press-advocacy organization.

In September, UNTAET announced that it was investigating the 1975 murder of five foreign journalists during Indonesia’s initial takeover of East Timor, which had just been abandoned by the Portuguese. Eyewitnesses and the families of the victims have claimed that the journalists were executed by the Indonesian military.

Meanwhile, UNTAET indicted suspects in the September 1999 murder of Indonesian journalist Agus Muliawan, on charges of “crimes against humanity.” On December 11, 2000, the UN accused an Indonesian special-forces commander and 10 others, mostly East Timorese members of the Tim Alfa militia, of murdering 13 people, including Muliawan and a group of aid workers.

Investigators have reported that Tim Alfa worked closely with the Indonesian army’s Battalion 745, thought to be responsible for the assassination of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, who was killed just days before Muliawan. Both the UN and the Indonesian government launched investigations into the Thoenes murder, but prosecution efforts had faltered by year’s end, mainly due to resistance from the Indonesian military.