In the run-up to August’s United Nations-sponsored vote on East Timor’s future status, political instability in the territory has escalated dramatically, prompting fears of a full-scale civil war. This grim backdrop is darkened further by the scarcity of independent news and information reaching East Timor’s citizens as they choose whether to accept Indonesia’s offer of integration with wide-ranging autonomy, or pursue complete independence. Pro-integration militias, nervous at the prospect of Jakarta’s abandonment, launched a murderous campaign in February to terrorize the local population, and, not coincidentally, embarked on a series of attacks clearly designed to suppress media coverage of the atrocities.
When asked whether the information ministry might attempt to intervene with militia leaders on behalf of the press, Yunus replied flatly that “We don’t have any special treatment for journalists here.”
The man who is making a reputation for himself as the champion of a free press apparently draws the line at offering any comfort to those covering East Timor. As a retired lieutenant general who has served as a military commander in East Timor, Yunus appears sympathetic to the militias’ point of view. “The militias perceive that foreign journalists go to East Timor just to give information about the anti-integration side of the story,” he said. “So the international world doesn’t know about the integrationist side–that is what angers the militias.”
Indonesian officials tend to characterize the conflict in East Timor as a battle between more or less equally matched sides: on the one hand, “integrationists” who favor continued union with Indonesia; on the other, pro-independence forces who favor a break with Indonesia. The emergence of pro-integration militias, Indonesian officials say, is only a natural outgrowth of the current political instability.
Many international observers say that the official characterization is far-fetched, and that the violence and fear gripping East Timor is a consequence of the rushed timetable for the referendum–an effort by Habibie to curry favor with the international community on the eve of the June 7 national elections .
With intense international focus on East Timor–especially from nearby Australia and former colonial master Portugal–many foreign correspondents are on the front lines of a very dangerous situation. Pro-Jakarta militia members, armed with guns and knives, have repeatedly roughed up and threatened reporters and photographers for writing stories perceived as favoring the pro-independence side. Militia members have also struck at journalists’ vehicles with machetes, iron bars, and rocks–in some cases, to prevent journalists from gaining access to scenes of recent violence, and in others, to punish them for their investigations. After dark, most journalists hole up in local hotels because it is too dangerous to go out at night, when armed bands roam the streets.
East Timorese newspaper publisher Salvador Ximenes Soares–whose paper, Suara Timor Timur, had its offices ransacked by militia forces on April 17 and was forced to cease publication for weeks–is walking a fine line, attempting to prepare the territory’s citizens for the sudden referendum while also taking care to avoid the militias’ wrath. “We are trying to publish balanced views,” Soares told CPJ in Jakarta, “but it is difficult. It is very difficult to publish a newspaper in these times.”
As East Timor’s only newspaper, Suara Timor Timur is an easy target for groups eager to block news from reaching the territory. The paper has been the object of constant threats, especially when it publishes views that anger the pro-Jakarta forces. On May 11, shortly after the paper managed to cobble together enough funding and equipment to resume basic operations, it was forced to cease publication for a day when a militia group threatened to attack the newspaper office again over Suara Timor Timur’s published interview with a pro-independence activist. A number of staff members have gone into hiding or fled to neighboring islands to escape death threats. Soares, a former member of parliament from the ruling Golkar Party, lays the blame for such troubles at the feet of the Indonesian government.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who negotiated the pact with Portugal that led to referendum plan, was dismissive of complaints against the militias, and shrugged off suggestions that the government bears any responsibility for the violence in East Timor. “It is unfair and untruthful to say that the Indonesian military is behind these groups or arming them,” Alatas said. “They are arming themselves.”
“There are hundreds of journalists going to East Timor,” Alatas added. “We have been telling them, ‘You should know where you are. Don’t think you are above the fray.’ I believe some journalists have been very active in East Timor and they cannot avoid being attacked. It is a situation of conflict. These journalists should know they are in harm’s way.”