Attacks on the Press 2001: East Timor

East Timor’s media faced their first real test under a democratic environment when they covered September’s United Nations-supervised poll electing a constituent assembly and a transitional government. The press performed admirably, with few cases of political harassment and most Timorese journalists attempting to be fair and balanced in their reporting.

Two daily newspapers, about a half-dozen weekly and monthly magazines, and a handful of community radio stations now operate freely, in stark contrast to the 24 years of Indonesian occupation, which ended in 1999 following a popular referendum and a maelstrom of violence directed by the Indonesian military and its local militia allies. The election of the assembly paves the way for full independence, expected in mid-2002.

The electoral victory of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), the formerly Marxist political party that led the independence movement, caused some anxiety among journalists, who accused the party of interfering with media efforts to cover opposition parties. On the eve of the vote, a senior Fretilin official called an editor of the largest daily newspaper, Suara Timor Loros’ae, and warned him that the paper would face reprisals for allegedly backing a rival political party during the campaign.

The new transitional government is charged with drafting a constitution, and while press freedom seems likely to be guaranteed in any charter, there is concern over the shape that broadcast regulations will take. A halting effort by the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor to push through legislation creating an independent public broadcasting authority failed prior to the elections. Instead, the transitional government signed a “cooperative protocol” with the territory’s former colonial ruler, Portugal, to establish an authority to broadcast radio and television in Portuguese. The Timor Loros’ae Journalists’ Association criticized the agreement, which was made without public discussion. It also ignores the vital role of the Tetum and Indonesian languages, both far more widely spoken in the territory than the official language, Portuguese.

In December, CPJ commended a U.N.-administered court for convicting members of an anti-independence militia of crimes against humanity, including the murder of Agus Muliawan, an Indonesian journalist slain in the violent aftermath of the 1999 referendum. The murderers of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, whom investigators believe was killed by Indonesian infantry soldiers after the referendum, have yet to be brought to justice.