Attacks on the Press 2003: East Timor

Despite widespread poverty in this island nation, a fledgling press has developed out of the destruction that followed the territory’s vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999. Since May 2002, East Timor has been sovereign, with only a small U.N. presence remaining until 2004 to provide defense and security assistance.

Given East Timor’s tiny, impoverished media market, the handful of newspapers and radio stations there remain largely dependent on international aid donors. Government radio is people’s largest news source. With the ruling Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (FRETILIN) party of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri holding a large parliamentary majority and controlling most important government posts, journalists complain that the government uses its power to control the press through intimidation and subtle pressure. The government-run radio and television service is particularly susceptible, according to local journalists.

Government influence could become a more serious problem in the future if FRETILIN continues to resist efforts to create a truly independent public broadcaster. The president of the Public Broadcasting Service, Virgilio Guterres, has criticized the state secretary for the Council of Ministers for sending a reprimand to the Public Broadcasting Service regarding a number of stories about internal government conflicts that aired on the service in July, though the service was never officially sanctioned.

The courts have also begun to side with those in power. Two of the country’s newspapers face large civil defamation judgments that, if imposed after appeals, could threaten their financial operations. For several years, some political leaders and media figures have called for the creation of a press council to mediate disputes and avoid costly legal battles.

In October, during a state visit to East Timor, outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had some unwelcome advice for the Timorese media. “An independent media, able to criticize the government, is good, but that independence can be abused,” he told the Timorese Parliament. His remarks were widely discussed in Timorese newspapers. Mahathir, who resigned in 2003 after 22 years in power, designed a system in Malaysia that tightly controls the press and political opposition. He was also a staunch defender of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

In a reminder of the heavy price journalists paid for covering East Timor, the families of five television journalists killed by Indonesian soldiers during the 1975 invasion gathered in October in the tiny hamlet of Balibo, about 70 miles (112 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Dili, to dedicate a memorial. The slain journalists, from the United Kingdom and Australia, were documenting incursions by Indonesia in advance of the full-scale seizure of the territory when Portuguese colonial rule ended. While investigators have identified some of those allegedly responsible for the Balibo killings, Indonesia has refused to turn the suspects over for prosecution in East Timor.

Indonesian authorities have also refused to extradite two Indonesian soldiers indicted for the 1999 murder of Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes, who was killed in the aftermath of East Timor’s vote for independence from Indonesia. The two soldiers were both members of Battalion 745, which has been implicated in numerous rights abuses in East Timor. Efforts to prosecute Thoenes’ murder in Indonesia have stalled.

Between 1975 and 1999, a total of nine foreign journalists were killed, all allegedly by Indonesian forces. It is a measure of progress that physical attacks on journalists in East Timor are now rare.