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East Timor press struggles to emerge

Freedom Forum Online - February 21, 2000

Arnold Zeitlin, Dili – In impoverished, war-devastated East Timor, the most urgent needs are food, water, shelter, clothing – and a printing press.

"Everyone agrees that it is urgent for the media to start functioning in East Timor," says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, chief of commnunications and information for the United Nations transition administration in the tiny country that last year won independence from Indonesia.

The United Nations is to remain for as long as three years in East Timor before turning the administration over to local authorities.

"People are confused and relying on rumors," says Virgilio da Silva Guterres, chief editor of the first independence-era newspaper, Lalalok (or Mirror), a photocopied weekly publication that first appeared in the capital, Dili, on January 21.

"We all are frustrated," he said. "I have many stories in my mind and no place to put them." Guterres, trained in Indonesia as a mechanical engineer, was arrested in Jakarta in 1991 and jailed for two years after a demonstration protesting the Indonesian army's shooting of demonstrators at a cemetery in Dili.

Limited by the cost of about $2 per copy, the Lalalok publishers produce about 50 copies each week. The paper is published in Tetum, a traditional language of East Timor and one of more than 30 languages in the country. Tetum lapsed into disuse during nearly 25 years of Indonesian rule.

The Lalalok staff works for no pay and depends on donations, mostly from abroad, to finance each issue. Guterres said a plan to display the newspaper publicly on bulletin boards has not been started: No one has put up the boards.

Guterres' organization, the Kdadlak Media Group, also produced early this month the first color photocopied issue of a monthly magazine, Talit@kum, which is published in Bahasa Indonesian. The magazine had appeared in 1998 in Java, where it was published by young Timorese who studied on Indonesian government scholarships. Many of them worked clandestinely for East Timor's independence.

The office and printing plant of Suara Timor Timur, the largest newspaper (circulation 8,000) during the days of Indonesian rule, were destroyed before the pivotal referendum in August, in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for political independence. (Indonesia had seized East Timor in 1975 after Portugal effectively abandoned its 400-year-old colony.)

Plans are to resume publication, but Suara Timor Timur's publisher remains in Jakarta. Journalist Hugo da Costa, a former Suara Timor Timur journalist, has announced plans to start another newspaper, the Timor Post, to be published in Bahasa, Tetum and Portuguese. Funding has been promised by UNESCO and the US.

Sonny Inbaraj, a Malaysian who worked for 10 years editing the editorial page of the English-language daily, the Nation, in Bangkok, has begun an online English-language newspaper, the AustralAsian, which is aimed at East Timorese academics, international workers for UN and nongovernment agencies in East Timor, and East Timorese expatriates in Australia.

The UN's Almeida said a number of proposals for setting up and operating a printing press were under consideration. He said a building that had served as the Indonesian government's printing press was found to have three offset machines, which can be put to use after repairs. The building, however, is in the middle of what became a camp for the Australian-led UN military force that was dispatched in September to quell the violence that flared after the referendum. For operations to resume, the equipment would have to be moved to a civilian area.

A team of technical experts will leave on January 30 for East Timor to assess the needs of the local press for printing facilities and a distribution network. The visit is part of a joint World Association of Newspapers and UNESCO initiative to help rebuild the newspaper industry in that war-torn area.

"Establishing a strong, free press is a vital and urgent priority in the process of building a new democracy on the island," said Timothy Balding, director general of WAN, in Paris. Koichiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, added, "An independent press in Timor is an essential factor for the development of democracy."

The WAN-UNESCO mission, with advice from the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association, will prepare funding proposals for the international community, which has committed itself to rebuilding East Timor.

The team consists of John Cox, of Sydney, Australia, a newspaper production consultant and former chief production manager for John Fairfax Ltd.; Lloyd Donaldson, a New Zealander based in St. Petersburg, Russia and director of Rusmedia Consultants; and Carlos Arnaldo, chief of media development for UNESCO.

The scenes in Dili nearly six months after the post-referendum violence are of wide devastation: At least one building in three in the capital is roofless and showing charred walls.

Burned hulks of charred vehicles rest in a heap where they have been taken in a dump outside town. The main roads are lined with tiny lean-to shops roofed with galvanized iron, where weary residents offer a few squash-like vegetables, tiny onions and greens. Gasoline is sold by the liter along the roadside in plastic containers. The equivalent of a gallon costs about $20.

The main roads also are lined by sullen young men standing and staring, most of them without work. No leaders tell them what to do, even if there were means to reach them.

Josi Alexandre Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader who has become the hero and potential of the independence movement, and Josi Ramos-Horta, who won a Nobel Prize in 1996 for his efforts to highlight human rights abuses in East Timor, have traveled widely in Asia but have resisted playing a role in East Timorese government. Gusmao has said he did not want to become president, and Ramos-Horta said in December that he planned to become a journalist in 2001.

Communications facilities are virtually nonexistent. Those who can afford them carry mobile telephones; the wired telephone network barely functions.

The UN has begun a 24-hour radio station broadcasting news in English and Bahasa Indonesian, the official language under Indonesia. The Roman Catholic Church operates a radio station on a hillside above Dili. Equipped to operate at 5,000 watts, the station functions at 1,000 watts because of power shortages. The third station, Vos Esperansa, is considered the capital's most popular outlet, but its feeble signal can barely be heard beyond the outskirts of Dili.

The East Timorese have yet to decide which language will be used in their independent state. Gusmao has said he favors designating Portuguese, the tongue of the former colonial ruler, as the official language.

Others say Portuguese is used largely by the older generation schooled during the colonial administration. Bahasa is known to most Timorese and it is still used in schools, but it is despised because of its Indonesian connections. Some professors at the university in Dili want to use English in their classes. The UN administration issues its documents in Tetum, Bahasa, Portuguese and English.

Almost six months after the referendum that led to independence, the East Timorese and the international organizations seeking to help them have established no cohesive regime. The closest organization to a government is called CNRT, the National Council of Timorese Resistance, an umbrella organization of a number of Timorese political factions.

"Despite the presence of these bodies and agencies, workable systems are yet to be implemented in the country," Guterres, the editor, has written.

Guterres, who prefers Timor Lorosae, the Tetum name for East Timor, also has stated: "CNRT keeps Timor Lorosae people in the dark. The people eagerly await to hear CNRT's plans for kick-starting the economy and political reconciliation, but to no avail. To date they have kept silent and have yet to clarify their stance on these important matters. In the case of language and currency, it's clearly the matter of a tiny minority trying to impose their will on the majority.

"While Tetum is the lingua franca, these political elites insist on Portuguese. If we want a truly democratic Timor Lorosae, all parties have to be open and transparent with one another. Our political leaders have to respect the rights of the people to be in the know of what decisions that are made in their name. They have the right to be informed and the right to question."