EAST TIMOR: Crusading journalist risks jail over defamation case
- ---------------------------- Original Message ----------------------------
Subject: [Pacific_media_watch] 5922 EAST TIMOR: Crusading journalist risks
jail over defamation case
From: "Pacific Media Watch nius" <pacific_media_watch@...>
Date: Sun, February 1, 2009 17:09
Title â 5922 EAST TIMOR: Crusading journalist risks jail over defamation
Date â 2 February 2009
Byline â None
Origin â Pacific Media Watch
Source â The Age (Melbourne), 1/02/09
Copyright TA http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/nz/
Status â Unabridged
Feedback â www.pacificmediacentre.blogspot.com (
FREEDOM (OF SPEECH) FIGHTER
A crusading journalist intent on exposing official corruption faces the
prospect of being sent back to the prison where he was
brutalised by his country's Indonesian occupiers, writes Tom Hyland.
DILI (The Age Online/Pacific Media Watch): Jose Antonio Belo knows a
lot about prison walls, inside and out. All up, he's spent about three
years imprisoned behind them. One time he was thrown onto the back of a
police truck and thrashed and stomped. The beating was so violent that a
witness said the truck rocked wildly, like a washing machine.
He's been shackled, hung upside down, bashed, electrocuted and burnt.
Belo won't say much about what happened to him in jail, except this:
"If you enter these places, and you get a mirror and see your face,
you're not going to recognise yourself. But I am lucky. I am alive."
These days Belo is a journalist, founder and director of an East
Timorese newspaper known for hard-hitting investigative reporting, the
kind of reporting that now risks sending him back to jail â to the same
prison, in fact, where he was once tormented.
Belo's story, like that of his homeland, is one of tragic twists and
triumphant turns. It's also one of curious ironies.
What's landed him in trouble is an article published by his paper,
alleging ministerial corruption in granting government tenders. One of
the tenders was to rebuild the walls of Belo's former prison. Another
was to provide uniforms for prison guards.
In response, he has been hit with a government-initiated charge of
criminal defamation, which could lead to a jail term of up to six years.
To compound the irony, he has been prosecuted under the laws of
Indonesia, the former occupiers who once persecuted Belo and his
compatriots. East Timor's own penal code â which will abolish
the offence of criminal defamation â has yet to be enacted.
If Belo's story mirrors East Timor's recent past, it also highlights
key issues confronted by its efforts to build a
democracy from the ashes of occupation. It involves corruption, press
freedom and a struggling judicial system.
Belo was three years old when Indonesia invaded East Timor, then
a Portuguese colony, in December 1975. Like much of the
population, his family fled to the hills. The early years of the
occupation were the harshest â a time of famine, bombardment and
At the end of the 1970s his family was captured and returned to
their home town, Baucau, where Belo went to school before
attending university in Dili. There he was part of the
clandestine resistance movement, giving political support to the
pro-independence fighters still in the mountains.
In January 1995, aged 23, he was arrested when 30 students
staged a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of
independence leader â and now Prime Minister â Xanana Gusmao,
and to remind delegates to UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia
and Portugal that the East Timorese themselves deserved a say in
The demonstration was met by 200 police and soldiers and it was
here foreign witnesses saw Belo thrown into the back of a police
truck. He spent the next 18 months in jail.
Released, but facing continued persecution, he went back to the
mountains in August 1996, where he joined guerillas led by David
Alex, a famed resistance fighter and a man Belo calls "my hero".
In their mountain camps they would talk of the future and what
they would do when their country was free. Belo's dream,
inspired by Alex, was to become a journalist.
"In the bush we discussed our struggle and our fight, and the
struggle East Timor was going to face after independence," says
"David Alex said: 'The struggle for independence is very tough,
but in some ways it's also easy. The struggle to serve the
people is the hardest.' "
They talked of the role of journalists: how after 1975, when six
Australian-based reporters were killed by the invading
Indonesian army, East Timor's story was untold, "in the
darkness"; and how in 1991, filmmaker Max Stahl's footage of the
Dili massacre put the country's plight "back on the map".
Belo's main task in the resistance was to act as an interpreter
for visiting foreign journalists, and to smuggle out documents,
tapes and videos.
His nom de guerre in the resistance was a local word for
sandalwood. Just as sandalwood was a precious export from Timor,
so too was the news he sent to the outside world.
Belo and Alex also talked about the plight of Indonesians, then
under the Suharto dictatorship, and how they suffered because of
the corruption and greed of their leaders.
So in a guerilla camp, Belo resolved that after independence he
would become a journalist, "a bridge between our leaders and the
Freedom, at this stage, was two trying years and a final
vengeful cataclysm away.
In June 1997 Indonesian troops captured Belo, while Alex
"disappeared" â killed. Belo spent another year in various
military detention centres.
Released, he resumed his work with the resistance and the
foreign media in the run-up to the 1999 UN-organised vote on
When the vote went against Jakarta, the Indonesian armed forces
and their local militias took revenge, laying waste to the
country and murdering up to 1500 civilians.
Belo and a handful of foreign reporters refused to be evacuated
and provided graphic footage of Dili burning â footage that
helped compel Australia to send an intervention force.
>From late 1999 until 2006 he worked as a correspondent andcameraman with Associated Press, the ABC, SBS and Channel Seven.
In 2006, with $500 of his own money, a $1000 donation and one
computer, he founded his own weekly newspaper, Tempo Semanal.
Now, with rising circulation and foreign support, including from
staff at Fairfax Media, it employs 20 staff.
"We focus on investigative reporting," Belo says.
"We annoyed the (former) Fretilin government and now we annoy
the (current coalition) Government, and other organisations,
like the World Bank and foreign embassies," he says.
"They think we're troublemakers, and the Government says we're
trying to bring them down. But no, that is not what we do."
A particular focus has been widespread corruption, which spreads
from the lowest levels of bureaucracy to, it appears,
It's a problem acknowledged by foreign agencies, including the
World Bank and watchdogs such as Transparency International,
which rate East Timor among the world's worst offenders.
The story that has landed Belo in his latest trouble was
published on October 12 last year.
Tempo Semanalhad a page one scoop, the result of months of
investigation, interviews and a stunning leak of ministerial
mobile phone text messages.
The story alleged Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly
awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts,
relating to rebuilding the walls at Dili's Becora prison and
supplying uniforms to prison guards.
The story cited leaked text messages on Lobato's ministerial
phone, including exchanges with a company that ultimately won
the $US1 million prison wall contract. Some of the exchanges
took place before tenders were officially called.
Lobato, who has denied any wrongdoing, lodged a formal complain
with the prosecutor-general.
She accused the paper of violating her privacy and breaching the
journalists' code of ethics, and attacked Belo, saying he was
trying to bring down the Government.
On December 12 Belo received a formal notification of charges,
which would be prosecuted under Indonesia's Penal Code, parts of
which are still in force while East Timor's own code, which
would decriminalise defamation, has not been enacted.
Prosecutors have told Belo he faces charges under articles 310,
311, and 312 of the Indonesian code. The cumulative penalty is
up to six years' jail and fines.
Two weeks ago he was questioned for three hours by prosecutors,
who denied him access to relevant documents and asked him to
name the source of the leak.
He is unclear when the charges will go to court.
"I'm quite pessimistic about this case, because the minister has
a lot of power," Belo says. "We are like an ant trying to fight
against an elephant."
Belo sees the prosecution as a test of Prime Minister Gusmao's
stated commitment to stamp out corruption and uphold press
freedom â two issues Gusmao mentioned in his 2007 inaugural
Promising to act against corruption, Gusmao vowed to create "a
culture of integrity, rigour, and professionalism in public
On the role of the press, he declared: "An integral part of a
democratic state is the right to be informed and it is in this
sense that we assume the commitment to guarantee freedom of the
press and the independence of the public media, before economic
and political power."
Belo says it is also a test of the independence of prosecutors
and the judiciary in ending a culture of official impunity for
senior figures accused of wrongdoing, including instigating the
politically motivated violence that racked the country in 2006.
"In my country a chicken thief can go to prison, but those who
were responsible for the deaths of people, they are having
holidays in Bali and flying off abroad," he says.
He says that if he has to go to jail "I'm ready for that", but
he worries about the future of his paper and the type of
journalism it will produce.
"Some of my friends are starting to ask if we can do this type
of story in the future. Some say we could do soft stories, so we
won't get into trouble. It will cost something."
He recalls his talks in the guerilla camp with David Alex, who
defined corruption as when state money disappears and the people
are made poor.
"This will affect journalists very much. How will they come out
with strong stories?
"And the Government? It's a test case. Will they respect or
implement the freedom of the media?
"That is their commitment and promise. Or is it only like a pop
singer, singing a sweet song but not really meaning it?"
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