Attacks on the Press in 1999
Date: Sat, 25 Mar 2000
Introduction to East Timor section from Annual Report "Attacks on the Press in 1999" For additional details, see link: http://www.cpj.org/attacks99/asia99/East_Timor.html
Committee to Protect Journalists EAST TIMOR (formerly Indonesia)
In August, as East Timor prepared to vote on whether to declare independence from Indonesia, military-backed, pro-Indonesia militias threatened, harassed and physically assaulted journalists covering the disputed territory. The attacks began shortly after the announcement in March of a United Nations-brokered agreement to hold an August 30 referendum on the independence issue.
The Indonesian military was bitterly opposed to the referendum, having occupied the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and fought a protracted war against independence. On April 17, following an escalating series of threats, rampaging militia members sacked the offices of Suara Timor Timur ("The Voice of East Timor"), the territory's only daily newspaper. The paper was shut down for more than two weeks, and many of its employees were driven into hiding. At about the same time, foreign journalists in East Timor began to face threats and beatings from the militias.
Protests by CPJ and other international organizations were rebuffed by the government of then-President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. During May meetings with a CPJ representative in Indonesia, both Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Information Minister Mohamad Yunus insisted that the Indonesian government had no control over the militias in East Timor. Both officials also denied that the attacks on journalists were linked to the Indonesian military, despite ample press reports to the contrary. "It is unfair and untruthful to say that the Indonesian military is behind these groups or arming them," Alatas told CPJ. "There are hundreds of journalists going to East Timor. 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."
In late August, the pace and fury of attacks on the press in East Timor intensified as the date of the referendum neared. Hotels housing foreign journalists were ransacked, and dozens of journalists were beaten. After the vote, which overwhelmingly supported independence for East Timor, daily assaults on journalists by the militia became routine. Indonesian soldiers refused to intervene to stop the attacks, and it became impossible for journalists to continue working in East Timor. Rampaging militia members ransacked the offices of Suara Timor Timur and shut down the territory's two functioning radio stations. The military told Indonesian journalists to evacuate the area for their own safety.
By September 2, there were virtually no reporters left in the territory. The handful who stayed behind sought shelter in the United Nations compound in Dili. When the UN announced the result of the referendum on September 3, there were no functioning East Timorese media left to carry the story. The militia killed independence supporters, burned Dili to the ground and drove the majority of the Timorese population into hiding, but the frenzy of violence went largely unseen by the outside world. It seemed clear that journalists had been silenced or chased out as part of a deliberate military strategy to hide the worst of the destruction.
On September 20, an Australian-led peacekeeping force entered East Timor, and journalists began to return. The situation remained extremely dangerous, however. Dutch free-lance reporter Sander Thoenes, who covered Indonesia for The Financial Times and The Christian Science Monitor, was shot dead outside Dili on September 22, as he fled on the back of a motorcycle from a group of armed men in military uniforms. United Nations investigators concluded that soldiers from Indonesian army battalion 745 were most likely responsible for Thoenes's murder.
Battalion 745 soldiers are also prime suspects in the September 25 murder of Agus Muliawan, an Indonesian journalist working for the Japanese news agency Asia Press International, who was massacred along with eight others in the village of Lospalos. In this same period, several other journalists were attacked and narrowly missed being killed.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described Thoenes as "an outstanding young journalist" and said he was deeply shocked by the killing. Annan added that Thoenes "faced danger from those who wished to hide the truth of the existence of their crimes. It was largely thanks to the courage and determination of men and women like him that these horrors and their perpetrators are brought to the attention of the world conscience."
Although many Indonesian journalists suffered beatings and threats at the hands of the militias in East Timor, much of the Indonesian press seemed to accept the military's version of events in the territory. In the weeks following the arrival of the Australian-led peacekeeping forces, Indonesian media fueled anti-foreign sentiment with unsourced stories that accused Australia of planning to invade Indonesia. The local press also alleged that Australian peacekeepers had committed atrocities against militia members in East Timor; these allegations were never documented or corroborated.
With the UN administering the territory in the transition period before full independence, international agencies are currently playing some role in helping East Timorese media rebuild. Among other challenges, local media were very short of office space. Most buildings in East Timor were destroyed during September's scorched-earth campaign, and there was virtually no functioning infrastructure left in the country at year's end. In December, East Timorese journalists announced plans to open two daily newspapers, and some radio coverage was being provided by the UN and the Catholic Church.
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