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EAST TIMOR: Crusading journalist risks jail over defamation case

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  • George Lessard
    ... Subject: [Pacific_media_watch] 5922 EAST TIMOR: Crusading journalist risks jail over defamation case From: Pacific Media Watch nius
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2009
      ---------------------------- 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
      To: pacific_media_watch@...

      Title – 5922 EAST TIMOR: Crusading journalist risks jail over defamation
      Date – 2 February 2009
      Byline – None
      Origin – Pacific Media Watch
      Source – The Age (Melbourne), 1/02/09
      Copyright TA http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/nz/
      Status – Unabridged
      Feedback – www.pacificmediacentre.blogspot.com (
      http://www.pacificmediacentre.blogspot.com/ )


      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 — 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 — which will abolish
      the offence of criminal defamation — 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 — a time of famine, bombardment and
      military encirclement.
      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 — and now Prime Minister — Xanana Gusmao,
      and to remind delegates to UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia
      and Portugal that the East Timorese themselves deserved a say in
      their future.
      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" — 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 — footage that
      helped compel Australia to send an intervention force.
      >From late 1999 until 2006 he worked as a correspondent and
      cameraman 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,
      ministerial offices.
      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 — 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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