The debate about Australian news coverage of East Timor — the Indonesian province that gained autonomy (sic) under United Nations protection after weeks of bloodshed in 1999 — has been renewed with publication of a book that argues the news media were strikingly “erratic” in their reporting.
Rod Tiffen, whose Diplomatic Deceits: Government, Media and East Timor considers coverage of East Timor from 1975 to 1999, writes the news media during that period “too often … took their cues about newsworthiness from what was ‘in play’ in the power games of Canberra and Jakarta,” the capitals, respectively, of Australia and Indonesia.
“Too often,” Tiffen writes, the Australian media “were insensitive to ongoing injustices.”
Yet, he adds, the news media “at other times … punctuated the politically convenient silence. They tested the propaganda claims. They sometimes conveyed the sufferings of the East Timorese, and so forced the issue to assume a higher priority in government policy.”
Tiffen, an associate professor of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, writes that media influence peaked in August and September 1999, “when the violence against the East Timorese reached a global audience, and produced a sense of urgency which made international intervention feasible.” The violence was provoked by pro-Indonesia militia reacting to results of a referendum in which the East Timorese voted for self-rule.
Reporting about East Timor has gained interest in Australia because of the foreign policy implications of the coverage. The violence in East Timor was quelled only after the arrival in September 1999 of an international peacekeeping force led by Australians. Their role represented an unusual case of Australia’s taking the lead in addressing a prominent international dispute.
Tiffen’s book bluntly criticizes the willingness of Australian governments to seek accommodation with Jakarta after Indonesian forces in the mid-1970s occupied and annexed East Timor, a former Portuguese colony.
“There was no outer limit,” he writes, “no transgression that was so great that they would change course. The government was locked into conniving with Indonesia’s lies and it was locked into a logic in which the suffering of the East Timorese would always count for nothing, where raison d’état had become completely separated from normal human compassion.”
The Australian press did not always reflect government policy, Tiffen writes. “It was in reporting developments which highlighted this separation that the media played their most important independent role,” he claims.
“The long, sorry saga of Australian policy on East Timor has pointed yet again to the importance of … an institution whose primary devotion is to disclosure, irrespective of whose cause the new information may be seen as favoring.
“If policy-making was perfect, this role [for the news media] might not be so necessary, but Australian policy on East Timor was far from perfect,” he writes.
Tiffen’s conclusions about the media are somewhat more generous than those of another Australian academic, Alison Broinowski, who has argued that media “were avid, as always, for conflict” in reporting about East Timor. They focused excessively on the role of Australian troops, to the exclusion of peacekeeping forces from other countries, she has claimed.
Broinowski, a researcher at the Australian National University, Canberra, also has criticized the Australian press for having “reported one side of the [East Timor] conflict but rarely the other.”
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