Journalists Gather in Dili

Dili, East Timor — Journalists gathered here this week for the inaugural congress of the Timor Lorosa’e Journalists Association (TLJA), declared their desire to build an independent and free press for their new nation out of the ashes of destruction left behind by the Indonesian occupation.

More than 150 delegates are attending the five day meeting, which began Wednesday, representing 14 new media organizations formed in the UN-administered territory since a 1999 referendum voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

Delegates declared their intention to speak on behalf of journalists in East Timor and to campaign for free press provisions during the constitutional assembly expected to convene later this year to draft a charter for East Timor. Fears were expressed that investigative reports on local issues could cause tension in a community not used to the give and take of a free press. The association, it is hoped, will offer protection for the local press.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to build a strong, professional base,” said Virgilio da Silva Guterres, one of the organizers and an editor with Lalenok, a local magazine. “The free press will be one of the foundations of our nation.”

The congress was broadcast live on Radio Ramkabian, a new student-run Dili community radio station which timed its debut to coincide with the congress. There are four radio stations in the territory, two daily newspapers and eight other publications, all of which have begun operating since late 1999. The pro-Indonesia militia violence following the referendum destroyed almost all media infrastructure in East Timor.

The territory is slated for full independence late this year or in early 2002.

The delegates said they would seek protection from regional colleagues and associations. A consensus emerged to seek membership in the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a Bangkok-based regional association of press advocacy organizations.

Kavi Chongtkittavorn, SEAPA’s chairman, attended the congress and welcomed TLJA’s application for membership in SEAPA. “East Timor is the newest country in the region and the newest free press. We welcome them to SEAPA. This is a great way to celebrate the new year.”

Indonesian journalists also attended the congress, offering support and pledging to work closely with Timorese journalists on training efforts. Albert Kuhon, a well-known broadcast journalist in Jakarta, urged delegates to learn investigative reporting skills. “You may even have to investigate your friends if you find they are corrupt,” Kuhon said. “That is your job now.”

On Saturday, the TLJA will dedicate a new road in Dili, Press Freedom Avenue ((Avenida da Liberdade de Imprensa), along the highway where Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes was killed by Indonesian soldiers in 1999. On Sunday, congress delegates will travel to the rural town of Balibo to inaugurate a memorial to five foreign journalists killed by Indonesian troops in October 1975 during the invasion of East Timor, which at the time was a Portuguese colony.

Hamish McDonald, author of the book, “Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra,” which chronicles the assassination of the journalists in Balibo, reminded delegates of the sacrifices that journalists have made to cover the territory since 1975. “The Balibo case is important because it has given us a chink of access into a massive zone of secrecy. It is a case where the governments involved had to respond to the bits and pieces of evidence that emerged over 25 years.”

McDonald urged Timorese journalists not to wait passively for outside agencies to investigate atrocities during the occupation but to carry out investigations themselves. “There are many thousands of witnesses out in your villages waiting to be interviewed.”

While East Timor has relatively few experienced journalists, the TLJA delegates said the association would coordinate training efforts and work to build a code of ethics and standards for the press. “Your strongest protection is your unity and organization,” said A. Lin Neumann, a consultant on Asian issues with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “All of us in the profession will do our best to assist your growth and freedom.”

The congress was organized locally and supported by UNESCO, the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor, the World Press Freedom Committee, The Freedom Forum, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Jakarta) and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance of Australia.

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