East Timorese Militias Turn Their Fury on the Press

“Journalists covering the violent political convulsions that gripped East Timor this spring found themselves the targets of pro-Indonesia militias angered by press coverage of their activities.

In the run-up to August’s United Nations-sponsored vote on the territory’s future status, political instability in East Timor escalated, prompting fears of a full-scale civil war. Jakarta’s surprise announcement at the end of January that it would consider granting the province independence ignited local tensions. Apparently eager to be rid of the financial, political, and diplomatic liabilities attached to maintaining control over East Timor, the Indonesian government decided that if the province’s citizens vote to reject integration as outlined in the autonomy proposal, it will cut the province loose. In February, pro-government militias launched a murderous campaign to terrorize the local population, and embarked on a series of attacks clearly designed to suppress media coverage of the atrocities.

On February 24, two Portuguese journalists-Jose Alberto Carvalho, a reporter for the privately owned SIC television station, and Jose Maria Cyrni, a cameraman for the same station–were assaulted by a pro-government mob in the capital, Dili. Carvalho and Cyrni were reporting on the violent clashes that erupted when pro-Indonesia militia soldiers fired on independence supporters during a funeral procession.

In a faxed warning sent the next day to various news agencies during Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s visit to Indonesia, two pro-integration militia leaders declared that “It is 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, the commanders of the Mahidi and Aitarak militias, respectively.

On March 26, about 20 members of the 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 reporting. Although STT gives space to both pro-integration and pro-independence voices, militia members accused the newspaper’s staff of stirring conflict.

On April 9, John Aglionby, Southeast Asia correspondent for the London-based  Guardian newspaper, and Jenny Grant, Jakarta-based correspondent for the South China Morning Post, were threatened and harassed by members of the Red and White Iron militia (Besi Merah Putih), a pro-Indonesia paramilitary force, when they visited the town of Liquica. Aglionby and Grant were investigating the massacre of at least 25 villagers on church grounds there on April 6. Two militia members apparently 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. 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 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.

On April 11, some two dozen members of the Red and White Iron militia attacked a convoy of journalists returning from Liquica. 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 April 6 massacre.

A police truck accompanying the convoy did not intervene to protect the journalists. On April 17–the same day that pro-Indonesian militia members led a rampage across Dili, killing at least 20 people–members of the Red and White Iron militia ransacked and destroyed the Dili offices of Suara Timor Timur, effectively shutting down East Timor’s only local independent newspaper.

Wielding sticks and iron bars, militia members battered down the door to the building, and smashed STTÕs computers, fax machines, and telephones; damage was estimated at 200 million rupiah (US$23,000). Two of the newspaper’s journalists have fled for Jakarta, fearing violent reprisals for their reporting. The newspaper’s publisher, Salvador Ximenes Soares, is not sure whether he will be able to put together the financing needed to resume operations. But Soares told Dangerous Assignments, “We want to publish again, whatever the consequences.”

Also on April 17, four journalists were threatened when more than 100 pro-Indonesia militia members stormed the house of a prominent separatist leader and former member of parliament, Manuel Jose Carrascalao, and attacked nearly 150 refugees who had sought shelter there. Bernard Estrade, Jakarta bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, and Marie-Pierre Verot, a Jakarta-based freelance reporter for several major French news outlets, were inside Carrascalao’s home when it came under attack. They were pushed, beaten, and threatened at gunpoint, while some militia members chanted that the journalists should be killed.

Gerrit de Boer, Jakarta-based correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, and Dermott O’Sullivan, a correspondent for the British magazine The Banker, witnessed the attack from outside the house. Three militia members surrounded and threatened to kill de Boer and O’Sullivan, ultimately forcing them to leave the premises.

Although representatives of the pro-integrationist and pro-independence movements signed an “Agreement to End Hostilities and Create Peace in East Timor” on April 21, the Indonesian government has done little to guarantee security in the province.

The commander in chief of Indonesia’s armed forces, General Wiranto, served as a witness to the signing ceremony, but Indonesian President B. J. Habibie reportedly told Australian news editors the day before that “It is almost impossible for him [Wiranto] to disarm [the militias]” because “they get mad.”