DILI - East Timorese journalists are like phoenixes. Not one, not two, but all of them have quickly risen from destruction. Some 150 journalists gathered for three days last week at the headquarters of the Council for Timor National Resistance (CNRT) and vowed to build up an independent and free press including ways to become honest and professional journalists.
The first congress hosted by Timor Lorosa'e Journalists' Association (TLJA) came about after months of preparation and hard work by young journalists. Reconciliation and cooperation among native journalists was the key for the success of the congress. Right after the 1998 ballot on independence, the journalist community here was devastated and divided. The media infrastructure was completely destroyed. Integrationist and nationalist journalists were at loggerheads. Now, for the sake of the country, they are working together to educate the public and disseminate independent information and ideas.
Since the beginning of last year, with financial and technical support from outside, some three dozen journalists have been able to organise among themselves and publish two daily newspapers and eight weekly magazines such as Suara Timor Lorosae, Timor Post, Talitakum, Lalenok and Lian Maubere. Some are mainstream, others more activist, reflecting their editors' convictions, but all represent indigenous voices of East Timor. A burgeoning free press is also attracting young journalists.
At the congress, which was broadcast live by a student-run radio station, the TLJA organised four panel discussions that included the whole gamut of journalism, codes of conduct, editorial and news management, political and gender issues and future strategies. Discussions were tense and long, often lasting well into the night by candlelight. The lack of electricity did not drive TJLA members home. Instead they stayed on, one hand holding a ball-point pen and the other swatting mosquitoes. At one session, in almost complete darkness, they talked about media independence and their watchdog role in working for the future of East Timor.
Among journalists here, current topics are corruption, cronyism and nepotism, much the same issues that they talked about under Indonesian occupation but could not write about. Rumours about certain leaders acquiring certain properties, giving deals to friends and cousins, were frequently brought up. Even the joint-venture Central Maritime Hotel, a ship hotel owned by the Central Group in Thailand along with local people, was brought up among those rumours. Who was the hotel's main connection? Some criticism was levied at the hotel's electricity consumption, which accounts for 15 per cent of all electrical power in Dili.
Journalists from Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and the US urged them to learn from the regional experience in reporting events and investigating scandals or rumours to the very end. They said that rumours would become even bigger if journalists did not further investigate to find out the truth as some rumours were mere fabrications to tarnish prominent people. George Alitjandro of Newcastle University, who has exposed many dubious deals under former president Suharto and Habibie as well as rampant corruption in the government of President Abdurahman Wahid, recommended that the East Timorese journalists be trained to dig deeper using all available tools including open and confidential sources and the Internet to link information and data together. With globalisation, he said, deal-makers are not restricted on one nationality but consist of a regional network.
One of the issues hotly discussed was the 1975 massacre in Balibo. The topic was requested by the East Timorese journalists who were born after the infamous incident that killed five journalists during the Indonesian invasion of their country. Hamish McDonald of the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote a book about the Balibo killings, urged the journalists to do their investigations without waiting for official information because thousands of witnesses would be waiting to be interviewed.
Quite a few local journalists feared that with their geographical location at the far end of Southeast Asia and a declining international focus on East Timor their country would be isolated. Thus, they said, pressure would be on them. Without outside support and knowledge of what was going on locally, journalists could be subject to abuse and their hopes of seeing East Timor becoming a liberal democracy would be nil.
Of late, local and international media have been reporting on domestic conditions in East Timor, including members of the CNRT and political parties. With Indonesia no longer occupying their country, journalists' focus is now on future rulers and their decision-making process. They are preparing for the time when the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor leaves their country, which is expected to be at the end of this year.
In fact, political campaigns by various parties have already started. They are competing for public support, so journalists are playing a crucial role in informing the public about their policies and visions of the future.
As a bridge to the region, the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has accepted the TJLA as a member. The TJLA will join independent media organisations in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. A series of workshops and seminars are in the pipeline during the run-up to the election to build up the skills of East Timorese reporters.
To remind the public about the importance of a free press, a new road in Dili has been named Press Freedom Avenue (Avenida da Liberdade de Imprensa), on the highway where Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes was killed by Indonesian soldiers in 1999. The congress delegates put up a memorial in Balibo to those journalists killed by Indonesian troops.