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RSF report on press freedom violations

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 29 November 1999 RSF report:

For immediate release
Paris, 30 November 1999

East Timor: Report on violations of press freedom

"You are a journalist. We're going to kill you."

On 23 April 1999 Indonesia and Portugal signed an agreement under the aegis of the United Nations to organise a referendum on self-determination for the people of East Timor. The poll on 30 August resulted in victory for complete independence, which won the support of over 75% of voters, rather than mere autonomy.

The prospect of a vote for independence at the start of this year, the arrival of a United Nations peacekeeping force and then the official campaign in August incited the Indonesian army to arm and mastermind militia who spread terror in East Timor and wrought havoc in the territory in early September. The East Timorese, Indonesian and foreign media were prime targets for paramilitary groups backed by the Jakarta government throughout the period leading up to the referendum.

The violence took a heavy toll: two journalists were murdered and hundreds assaulted, particularly during April, May and August, and those believed to be against the autonomy option were continually threatened. Even though most Indonesian journalists were against independence, they were under constant pressure from the army and did not escape attacks by the pro-Jakarta militia. One special correspondent was shot and injured, at least three others had to go into hiding for several days and dozens were threatened.

In November 1999 the East Timorese media, like the country, were in ruins. Since the arrival of the peacekeeping force and the setting up of a provisional government by the United Nations, the media have been trying to get back on their feet. Two radio stations resumed broadcasting in mid-November and efforts were being made to launch newspapers that would finally be free of interference from Jakarta.

Reporters Sans Frontières calls on the Indonesian government to put the soldiers responsible for the deaths of the two journalists on trial, in accordance with recognised standards of international law. We ask the new United Nations administrator for East Timor, Sergio Vieira Mello, to ensure that the emerging media represent the full spectrum of political opinions in East Timorese society.

Before 1999, the media were under army control

Since February 1993 there has only been one newspaper in East Timor, the daily Suara Timor Timur (STT, The Voice of East Timor). It is edited by Salvador Ximenes Soares, a member of parliament for the Golkar, the ruling party in Indonesia until October 1999. At the time President Suharto's Indonesia was a country of censorship and official propaganda where very few dissident voices could make themselves heard without risking imprisonment.

Three STT journalists were arrested and held for a day in June 1994 after publishing a report on army violence against inhabitants. "We were released after Monsignor Belo, the bishop of Dili, intervened on our behalf", said Metha Guterres, one of the reporters arrested.

"From 1995 onwards, pressure from the army increased, and soldiers came to our offices every day." The situation worsened in 1996 when two separatist leaders, Mgr Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "After that, our reports were systematically re-read by Indonesian army officers", Metha Guterres continued. "The local authorities even asked Salvador Soares to sack two journalists, which he refused to do." The reporter also said that the army often organised "self-criticism sessions" with journalists, particularly after they printed news of the main armed opposition movement, the Fretilin. Another STT journalist, Lourenco Vincente Martins, said the army had asked newspapers to publish false information, saying, for example, that people had been killed by the Fretilin when the real culprits were Indonesian soldiers.

Before 1999 a second source of news came on the scene. Radio Timor Kmanek (RTK), which has ties with the influential Catholic church and especially with Mgr Belo, began broadcasting on 3 February 1998 after long negotiations at the highest level. But news was not a priority for the station, which devoted most of its programmes to educational and religious topics.

Until agreement was reached on the referendum, the only other media allowed to operate in East Timor were Indonesian, such as the national radio RRI, the state TV channel TVRI and the army's Radio Lorosae. A weekly called Novas was launched in February 1999. Edited by Gil da Costa, the governor of East Timor's brother-in-law, it closed down in April after putting out little but Indonesian propaganda for three months. Romansa, a monthly devoted to the Indonesian cause, was published during the first four months of 1999. One East Timorese journalist said the staff was composed entirely of Indonesians. The newspaper ceased publication when the United Nations team arrived to organise the referendum.

After agreement on the referendum: at least five "alternative" media emerged

As the referendum was being organised, a few media tried to put out "alternative" news to that provided by the newspapers and radio stations allowed to operate by the Indonesian authorities. From April 1999 Radio Matubian, run by the DPP Impetu (Students' Committee), began broadcasting two hours of programmes (at 6am and 6pm) calling on the population to vote for independence and explaining why, describing the agreements in force and so on. The broadcasts were always made from a different place, with students taking their equipment from house to house "so as not to be arrested by the secret service", as one of the student leaders explained. On 2 September the committee's premises were burned down by the anti-independence militia and the station's equipment was destroyed.

The Fretilin, the armed wing of Xanana Gusmao's National Centre for Timorese Resistance, also launched a clandestine radio station, Vos de Esperanca, to keep people informed of the situation. One of the station's "journalists" explained: "We took news put on the internet by East Timorese activists and translated it into Tetum, the local language, to keep the population up to date with human rights violations, news of the resistance movement and preparations for the referendum." The station stopped broadcasting in August when the Fretilin were forced to retreat into the jungle. It has been back on the air since 18 October, putting out four hours of programmes per day from a building in Dili formerly used by the Indonesian intelligence service...

The centre also launched its own newspaper in August. Vox Populi, which had a print-run of about 5,000, appeared every two days in the months leading up to the poll.

The monthly Avante!, published by the Indonesian organisation Fortilos, was sold in Dili from May 1999 "to combat government propaganda", as one of the organisers, also a journalist in Jakarta, said. Two reporters worked in East Timor with the main editorial office in Indonesia. People selling the newspaper in the streets of Dili were set upon and beaten by pro-Indonesian militia on several occasions. The monthly ceased publication after the referendum. In June the BRTT, a pro-Jakarta party, had called in a press release for Avante! to be banned.

Finally Radio Unamet, the station run by the United Nations' mission to East Timor, began broadcasting in early April with the primary aim of explaining the ins and outs of the referendum. It went off the air on 3 September - without giving the results of the poll.

1999: Suara Timor Timur, a prime target for the army and militias

The 20 or so East Timorese journalists on the staff of STT were in an unusual position at the start of 1999. Discussions with the Indonesian and Portuguese governments, under the aegis of the United Nations, on the territory's future status, then, following the agreements of 11 March, 23 April and 5 May, the organisation of the referendum and the arrival of the United Nations mission, Unamet: never had the journalists had to deal with so many subjects for which the Indonesian authorities were no longer the sole source of information.

According to the STT journalists that the Reporters Sans Frontières representative in East Timor talked to, they tried to be professional and report the situation from both sides, reflecting the views of both those who supported autonomy and those who wanted total independence. This stance put them in danger, making them prime targets for militia backed and armed by the Indonesian army.

From late February 1999, when the first militia were formed - one said it was planning to kill all Australian diplomats and journalists - the situation was tense. The STT staff, sponsored by Mgr Belo, called all the various groups to a meeting at its offices. Independence fighters thus had the chance to talk to representatives of the church and army as well as the militia leaders. But this attempt at reconciling conflicting interests in handling news was a failure. On 26 March, militia that supported autonomy attacked the STT offices to complain about the newspaper's editorial line, which they said was too strongly in favour of independence. The members of the Mahadi group threatened to set fire to the offices and asked STT reporter Antonio Kiik, who was on duty at the time, which journalist had interviewed David Ximenes, one of the leaders of the National Centre for Timorese Resistance, for that day's edition. Yet the previous day STT had printed an interview with the head of the Mahadi militia, Cancio Carvalho.

On 5 April militia attacked a church in Liquiça. A statement issued by the Indonesian army said five people were killed, but the clergy said at least 25 died in the attack (other sources put the toll as high as 50). In its 7 and 8 April editions, STT decided to give both figures. "From then on, we became the enemy of the militias and the army," said Lourenco Vincente Martins of STT. Metha Guterres said: "A Reuters photographer was approached in Liquiça by militiamen who asked him to supply information about STT journalists". The photographer later called the newspaper to warn staff that their lives might be in danger if they went to Liquiça.

Nonetheless, Lourenco Vincente Martins said the 16 April edition featured a photo of Eurico Guterres, leader of the Aitarak militia, on the front page. He had complained several times that his movement was not sufficiently represented in STT's columns, and the daily finally gave in to pressure. Even so, on 17 April, when Dili was invaded by hundreds of pro-autonomy militants brought in by the truckload by the Indonesian army, the STT offices were ransacked and all its computer equipment destroyed. The daily was only able to resume publication on 3 May. Damage was estimated at over 30,000 dollars (30,000 euros).

On that same day Metha Guterres left Dili for Jakarta, only returning at the start of November. He kept a very low profile, meeting only human rights activists and a few journalist friends. Two other STT journalists left East Timor for a while: Joao Barreto for Jakarta and Hugo Da Costa for Darwin, Australia.

Suara Timor Timur: censorship by the editor and threats from the army

After the daily reappeared on 3 May, the pressure exerted by editor Salvador Soares increased every day. As far as he was concerned, supporters of independence no longer had the right to express their opinions. Lourenco Vincente Martins said he called all the staff together and ordered them to follow his instructions, warning that they would otherwise be sacked immediately. The situation worsened considerably during August with the official launch of campaigning for the referendum on 30 August.

Lourenco Vincente Martins said: "During the second week of August, the journalists threatened to leave if they were not allowed to work freely." One STT reporter, Rosa Garcia, said she took advantage of the editor's absence to publish an interview with members of the Fretilin she had met on 22 August. She took the copy to the printers herself, saying that Soares had agreed to publish it. "It was the only way to get it through", she said. "Otherwise it would have been either tampered with or completely censored."

On 24 August, at the height of the election campaign, Rosa Garcia and her colleague Suzanna Cardoso went to Santa Cruz to cover a rally by pro-Indonesian militia. They were harassed and then fired at by militiamen, and Suzanna Cardoso suffered a slight arm injury.

Two days later STT, already under threat from the militia, became a target for the army. Lourenco Vincente Martins said: "Very near the offices I came upon some members of the Indonesian intelligence service who asked me where the East Timor journalists were, because he wanted to meet them. I had time to warn my colleagues. I felt that someone was planning to harm them." Journalists on duty at the time ran out and sought refuge at the adjoining Makota hotel, where many foreign journalists were staying.

The vast majority of the STT staff never went back to the newspaper. The following week most of them left Dili for Denpasar (Bali) or Jakarta. On 3 September, the day before the results of the referendum were announced, Rosa Garcia sought shelter at the home of a Japanese journalist: "A militiaman came to tell me that I would be kidnapped if I did not leave the country. The next day I left Dili and went to Jakarta." Lourenco Vincente Martins stayed in East Timor but was forced to flee into the mountains to escape the militia. In November 1999 editor Salvador Soares was still in Jakarta.

On 6 September, when Dili was the scene of atrocities by the militia as the Indonesian army stood by and watched, the STT offices were set on fire. All the daily's equipment was destroyed, as well as its library and archives.

Like East Timor itself, the new country's media need to be rebuilt from scratch. In November 1999 no newspapers were available. Three radio stations have resumed broadcasts: Vos de Esperanca on 18 October, Radio Timor Kmanek on 8 November, with programmes in Tetum and Portuguese and an hour-long daily newscast, and Radio Untaet on 15 November.

The printed press no longer exists. Computers are scarce, and newsprint, ink and films are almost impossible to find. Nonetheless, Timorese journalists are clearly determined to get their newspapers back in circulation. Rosa Garcia has been bringing out a one-page newsletter, Loro Foun Sae (The New Sunrise), since 8 October. She produced just five copies of the first issue, but since then has managed to have several hundred photocopies made in Darwin, Australia, and brought to Dili. At the moment it is the only independent "newspaper" in East Timor.

Indonesian journalists also attacked and threatened by "pro-Jakarta" groups

In April 1999 some militia decided to direct their attentions to Indonesian journalists who did not support autonomy. The Red and White Iron militia claimed to have a blacklist of such reporters, and a few days later a high-ranking army officer, Major Bambang Wisnumurthy, sought to justify attacks on Indonesian reporters by saying that "journalists should have more respect for professional standards".

Throughout the run-up to the referendum and during the official campaign in August, the Indonesian government constantly called to order media it regarded as not sufficiently pro-autonomy. In July, the premises of a Timorese human rights organisation, the Hak Foundation, were attacked by militia. When the news was reported in the daily Jakarta Post and the weekly Tempo, Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas personally accused both newspapers of "not being nationalist enough". Ndari, a journalist with Tempo, said he had received "comments" from the ministry on several occasions. Tri Agus Siswowihardjo, a reporter with Jakarta News FM and an official of the human rights organisation Solidamor, said: "My radio station received phone calls from officials and army officers complaining about our coverage of events in East Timor." He added: "The police often came up to Indonesian journalists asking them to combat 'independence propaganda'."

Ging Ginanjar, a freelance journalist, said one of her fellow journalists who had not obtained accreditation from the Indonesian army had decided to leave Dili after two days on 23 August because of pressure from the army. She was afraid that soldiers might give her name to the militia.

The situation worsened as the referendum drew near. Three journalists from Kompas were threatened or attacked - even though the daily was regarded as relatively favourable to autonomy. On 15 August Eddy Hasbi received threatening phone calls when he arrived in Dili. The caller, claiming to be a member of the intelligence service, accused him of supporting pro-independence groups and advised him to leave East Timor immediately. On 26 August Kornelius Kewa was shot and injured as he was covering a gathering of militants during the day set aside for campaigning by pro-autonomy movements. On 28 August Rien Kuntari was set upon in Becora. Pro-autonomy militants told him: "If you are one of those journalists who write lies about East Timor, we will kill you."

On 24 August Albert Kuhon, a journalist with the privately owned television channel SCTV and his cameraman were beaten by pro-Indonesian militia outside their house. A few days later, just before the poll, someone close to the leader of the Aitarak militia, Eurico Guterres, threatened Albert Kuhon: "We know that you work for SCTV. We're going to kill you." Yet a few minutes later he managed to negotiate an interview with Guterres. Albert Kuhon confirmed that Indonesian journalists were being put under pressure by the army and militias: "If I hadn't toned down certain stories, my reporters would have been killed." After the 24 August attack and at the request of his colleagues, he censored his own filming of violence committed by the militia, sending several messages to the Jakarta office to ask for certain scenes not to be broadcast.

On 30 August, the day of the poll, three Indonesian journalists left East Timor after receiving threats. Peter Rohe of the daily Jakarta Suara Bangsa, Joaquim Rohi, a freelance reporter, and Mindho Rajagoekgoek of Radio Nederland managed to return to Jakarta a few days later.

For some observers, even if some Indonesian newspapers have been victims of pro-Jakarta militia and the Indonesian army, the vast majority supported autonomy - sometimes to the point of misinforming the public. Rusdi Marpaunge, director of the Institute of Research on the Press and Development (LSPP), said after the results were announced: "In the case of almost all the publications concerned, the destruction in Dili was due simply to the anger of the losers, which the army was unable to control." One journalist from a leading Jakarta daily said: "In any case, the police did their work by not interfering when violence occurred. It was vital not to increase the already considerable tension between the two camps." That statement is indicative of the state of mind of a large proportion of the Jakarta press.

After the referendum, a witch-hunt of journalists began

Journalist Tri Agus Siswowihardjo was quite clear: "Rumours put out by the army and the secret service were growing day by day. Some of us were going to be kidnapped if we did not leave East Timor." Ging Ginanjar, a freelance who contributes to the Australian radio station SBS, backed him up: "Indonesian journalists left the territory as soon as they could because of the rumours put out by the army that the supporters of independence were planning terrible revenge against the Indonesian press." Ging Ginanjar said it had even been alleged that Asian journalists would be threatened by Australians and the Fretilin after the referendum results were announced. She added that there had in fact been very few threats from independence supporters. Ndari of Tempo said: "As far as I'm concerned, the Indonesian army had a deliberate strategy aimed at forcing journalists to leave East Timor. Even before the announcement of the results, it put out the rumour about the supposed revenge of the supporters of independence and the anger of the pro-Indonesian militia."

On 3 September, the day before the results were due to be officially announced, the Indonesian police and army told journalists that they were no longer able to offer them protection against the militia or reprisals by supporters of independence. They urged journalists to leave East Timor as soon as possible - or stay on at their own risk. The statement persuaded nearly all the Indonesian special correspondents covering the poll to return to Jakarta on the flights made available by the army.

The few Indonesian journalists who decided to stay on in East Timor, out of a sense of professional duty and courage, were indeed threatened or assaulted as pro-autonomy militia set about the methodical destruction of the territory. Albert Kuhon, who is in charge of a team of 12, including six journalists, decided to stay in Dili with Gunawan, a cameraman, and to send the rest of his team home. On 5 September, when they were in Liquiça to cover the departure of hundreds of refugees, a militiaman held a pistol to the cameraman's forehead as he was filming the police station. The two journalists were threatened again later the same day near the home of Mgr Belo, which had been set on fire.

On 8 September Gunawan was threatened by a reporter from the official news agency Antara who was travelling with the two television journalists. The reporter pulled out a knife and demanded the videotapes recorded that morning, saying: "It's better that I should ask you for the pictures than the Aitarak militia." Gunawan handed over the tapes, which were destroyed at once. SCTV was the last Indonesian television channel in East Timor. Albert Kuhon and Gunawan left Dili shortly afterwards.

International media: two journalists murdered by the Indonesian army

Sander Thoenes, Jakarta correspondent of the British daily The Financial Times and the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland, was reported missing on 21 September, the day after Australian peacekeeping troops arrived in East Timor. His mutilated body was found by Australian soliders the next day. The driver of the motorcycle on which he had been a passenger said he had been "fired at by men wearing Indonesian army uniform" as they were on their way to Becora, the neighbourhood that is the pro-autonomy movements' stronghold.

Indonesian journalist Ging Ginanjar provided valuable evidence about the presumed killers. "An Indonesian non-commissioned officer clearly told me that soldiers from battalion 744 had killed Sander. Apparently he was going by on a motorcycle when a group of East Timorese shouted insults at the Indonesian army, humiliating the soldiers nearby." This version of events would seem to be correct because on 19 October the Australians questioned an Indonesian army officer about the Dutch journalist's murder. Three other soldiers are also being held in connection with the killing.

On 25 September Agus Mulyawan, an Indonesian journalist working for the Japanese news agency Asia Press, was murdered with a group of eight people near Los Palos. He had been in East Timor for about six months making a documentary on the Fretilin, and at the time of the murders was following a group of monks on their way to meet refugees in the mountains. All the evidence suggests that Indonesian soldiers from battalion 745, who were retreating as troops from the multinational force arrived, were responsible for the killings. Some sources said that many of the soldiers were captured and executed by members of the Fretilin.

In addition to the two murders, the foreign media have been targets for almost systematic threats and violence from pro-autonomy militia. Ezki Suyanto, a journalist with the radio station Voice of Human Rights and an official of SOMET (Security Office for Journalists and the Media in East Timor), set up by the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Jakarta) and the International Federation of Journalists (Brussels), said: "Practically every journalist in East Timor during April, May, August and September was at least threatened with death if not physically assaulted." Ezki Suyanto believes about 300 journalists were victims of violence during 1999.

Some reporters had a close brush with death. On 1 September Jonathan Head of the BBC was struck by a militiaman with the flat side of a machete. As he was also being fired at, he broke his arm trying to get away. "My attacker's eyes were completely bloodshot", he said later. "I've no idea why he didn't kill me." On 21 September John Swain of Britain's Sunday Times and Chip Hires, a photographer with the French picture agency Gamma, managed to escape into the jungle after being stopped by Indonesian soldiers. Their interpreter was kidnapped and their driver beaten. The two journalists were eventually rescued by the Australian army.

As early as April and May, many foreign journalists received death threats in an initial wave of violence from pro-Indonesian militia. On 17 April Bernard Estrade of Agence France-Presse and Marie-Pierre Vérot of Radio France Internationale were at the home of pro-independence leader Manuel Jose Carrascalao when members of the Aitarak militia attacked the house, killing eight people. A few hours later, men armed with iron bars went to Tourismo Hotel, where the journalists were staying and ordered them to hand over their notes, films and recordings. Bernard Estrade refused, showing the accreditation document he had obtained from the Indonesian authorities, and the militiamen finally left empty-handed.

On 10 September the few remaining Unamet officials and accredited foreign journalists, powerless in the face of the rising tide of violence, decided to leave the country. Only one "clandestine" reporter stayed on: Allan Nairn, an American journalist working for the progressive weekly The Nation and running the non-government organisation East Timor Action Network, was arrested by Indonesian security forces on 14 September. He was interrogated by several officers, including the general in charge of East Timor, Kiki Syahnakri. The authorities said Allan Nairn had been arrested because he did not have a professional visa. The next day the journalist was sent to Kupang, in the western part of the island, where he was stopped by border police. Despite assurances by the authorities to the United States embassy, the journalist was kept in custody until 20 September, when he was expelled to Singapore. Some Indonesians officials had called for him to be brought to trial, and he could have faced up to ten years in prison. In 1991 Allan Nairn was severely beaten by Indonesian soldiers after he witnessed the Santa Cruz massacre in which 200 civilians were killed by the army at a funeral.


Reporters Sans Frontières calls on:

- the President of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, to do everything possible to ensure that the soldiers responsible for the deaths of Sander Thoenes and Agus Mulyawan, and those soldiers' superior officers, are tried and sentenced in accordance with the standards of international law, and

- the new United Nations administrator of East Timor, Sergio Vieira Mello, to ensure that the emerging media represent the full spectrum of political opinions in East Timorese society.

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