Attacks on the Press 2002: East Timor

A decades-long struggle for independence ended on May 20, when the U.N. Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) formally handed power to East Timor’s first elected government, making the tiny half-island state the first new nation of the millennium. A fledgling press has emerged from the destruction that followed the territory’s vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999, and now the country has two daily newspapers, a handful of weeklies, and seven small private radio stations. Indonesia, which annexed East Timor in 1975 following the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule, did not tolerate an independent press.

East Timor’s dominant media outlet is the national radio service established by the United Nations in 1999, Radio UNTAET, renamed Radio Timor Lorosae after independence. Roughly modeled on the BBC, the station was intended to become a blueprint for a public broadcaster independent of the government. But for most of 2002, the service was mired in controversy, funding problems, and charges of political interference. U.N. officials failed to establish an independent broadcasting authority, and instead the ruling Fretilin Party of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri pushed through legislation in May giving the new government control over management of the station after independence.

The move was disquieting, given accusations throughout the April presidential election campaign that Fretilin Party activists already had begun trying to influence reporters at Radio UNTAET. Following independence, sources at the service told CPJ that Fretilin interference was pervasive at the station.

The constitution approved by the National Assembly in March falls short of making press freedom absolute, leaving the right to free expression subject to several legal provisions. There will likely be numerous court battles in the future as legislators draft press, libel, and broadcast regulation laws.

By and large, however, private media outlets in East Timor–all of which are small, financially struggling, and mostly confined to the capital, Dili–say they have so far been free to report without fear of political retribution.

In November, East Timorese authorities indicted two Indonesian military officers for the September 1999 murder of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes. A reporter for the Financial Times and the Christian Science Monitor, Thoenes was one of two journalists killed in the violence that followed East Timor’s August 30, 1999, vote for independence from Indonesia (see page 172). As pro-Jakarta militias went on a rampage with support from the Indonesian military, journalists were deliberately targeted in an apparent effort to ensure that there would be no witnesses to the atrocities. The indictments put the onus on Indonesia either to prosecute the two accused, who were also charged with 16 additional counts of “crimes against humanity” stemming from the 1999 carnage, or extradite them to East Timor.

In early December, Dili’s usual calm was shattered by two days of rioting that left two dead from police gunfire and scores injured. The prime minister’s house, government buildings, and some foreign-owned businesses were burned during the unrest, which exposed political rifts in the new nation.