15 November 2009

Timor-Leste: The Independent Media’s Role in Combating Corruption

Lunch Talk with the Diplomats in Australian Embassy Jose Antonio Belo Director, Tempo Semanal national weekly newspaper November 11, 2009/12:00 - Good morning. I would like to acknowledge and welcome the representatives of the groups who are here today, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts. This is a very good initiative to hold this forum.

SECTION ONE: Personal background and ideas of journalism
My name is Jose Antonio Belo, and I am a journalist here in East Timor. Some of you may know me from my work with the newspaper Tempo Semanal, and some others will have known me for much longer, maybe even from before I became a journalist.

I come here today to speak with you about the current state of journalism in East Timor, and the effects this has on government, freedom of information, and the health of our society. So many things have changed in recent years, but this young, tiny nation is still facing as many threats as it has for decades before.

I speak as someone who has had only practical training. I have received my training through learning from my mistakes during some of our nation’s darkest years. I became interested in journalism from my time in the Resistance movement, when I worked with international reporters to tell the world of the East Timorese people’s struggle. Journalists played important roles when bringing independence to this country, and continue to protect this independence now that we have it.

Through this process, I realised how important it is for the voiceless people of this nation to have their troubles heard and acted upon, and also how important it is for journalists to be as strong and unbiased as possible when telling the stories which affect them. My former commander, mentor, and hero, David Alex, once 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.” He was killed in our liberation struggle, but his words live on and are just as important now as they were then. We, the East Timorese media, continue to struggle in our fight to serve the people of East Timor who still cannot have their voices heard.

I have three characteristics: honesty, being frontal, and credibility. Which some people may not like. So today in this forum, I may make some people feel uncomfortable and for that, I apologise. I know the dignitaries who I’m talking to are very intelligent people, so I may receive some hard questions after this. I do like receiving the challenges and criticisms from you all so I can build my capacity.

SECTION TWO: The Public Effects of Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism in East Timor and Journalism’s Role in Addressing The issue

In every democracy, the public has a right to know what their leaders are doing to help lead their country. East Timor is not different. We deeply respect some of our leaders for their personal sacrifices during the Resistance struggle, who, like so many of the people they led, lost family and friends to foreign occupiers.

But we are beginning to see some problems. Some of our once-great leaders are acting differently than how we thought they should. Some of our leaders seem to be working for themselves and their families, instead of working for the people who they once united in a common struggle against a murderous enemy. The phrase, “luta hamutuk”, or “struggle together” is well-known to our people, and shows our solidarity and how we share common goals. Yet some of our most important leaders are now threatening to destroy this solidarity upon which our nation has been liberated and continues to be built.

We have seen how our leaders can act in many of the local media’s news stories. One example is the Minister of Justice’s blatant conflict of interest with Pualaka, a company heavily influenced by her husband, regarding tenders for the Becora prison. A report from last July by the National Anti-Corruption Directorate stated this issue involved nepotism, conspiracy, and misinformation by the Ministry of Justice, and abuses of power by it and the Ministry of Finance. This issue first came to light through Tempo Semanal’s investigations, and the Minister of Justice has since laid criminal defamation charges to discredit and silence the newspaper. I will speak more about that later.

Another example of how our leaders are acting out-of-order concerns the case of Maternus Bere. This abuse of power has devalued our justice system and set a troubling precedent for any similar incidents which may happen in the future. In the future, will the East Timorese people look to our leaders for the leadership and governance systems to resolve these problems in just and peace-building manners? Or will this incident cause our people to lose faith in our justice system and take justice into their own hands?

One anonymous Tempo Semanal reader posted a comment on our website after reading that Maternus Bere had been returned to Indonesia, which reads as follows: “On another day, capture the militia members and just kill them!!! Then put their head on a tray and send it to Xanana and Horta for them to eat.” Is this the kind of behaviour which our leaders’ actions should be causing?

The East Timorese news media exists for similar reasons as other countries’ news media: to keep our leaders accountable and to inform the public about their actions. East Timor’s leaders have pride under their skin. When you keep talking about their corruption, they feel ashamed for themselves and to their community. They lose face in the community. They pretend to smile, but they’re really feeling ashamed.

Our people must know about these issues. Public pressure is a very effective way of preventing those in power from corrupting the people’s interests for the sake of their own. When they learn about these issues, our people feel disappointed with the leaders, and the leaders know. The community is starting to think that these leaders are committing the same errors that were committed by the Indonesians, that the Resistance leaders act like Soeharto’s regime by misusing and abusing the power which should be used for the people. Some leaders even try to use their history in the Resistance movement try to justify their malpractice and immoral actions in Government, which only devalues the struggles we made to achieve independence.

If our leaders are allowed to commit these actions without accountability or consequence, then the state won’t just be corrupted, but the public’s opinion of the state will be as well.
Slowly we can prevent this corruption of our state, and of a way of life which we’ve barely had time to appreciate since independence. I disagree with the Government to set up another commission to fight corruption, because East Timor is too small. Everyone knows each other. The commission members are not going to compromise their security or safety to investigate or prosecute their friends, who are the leaders themselves.

Journalism can, should, and will play a key role in fighting corruption in Timor-Leste.

Journalism is an effective form of public education, which informs many people about high-level events in ways which are easy to understand. Tempo Semanal’s motto is “husi imi, ba imi” or “from you, to you”. Our journalists are normal, poor-yet-courageous East Timorese people who understand how their compatriots feel about these issues.

East Timorese people are smart, and know that they should not support leaders who do not work for them. Instead of setting up another ineffective anti-corruption commission, we should focus on informing our people as well as possible so they can hold their leaders accountable by the vote. By democracy. This is the sustainable way of ensuring Prime Minister Gusmao’s desire for “a culture of integrity, rigour, and professionalism in public administration,” and for improving public understanding of and accessibility to the Government.

The PM himself has said that, “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.” It is this attitude which helped journalists tell of East Timor’s independence struggle, and it is this attitude which will help preserve its integrity, and public faith in our system of government.

Prime Minister Gusmao reiterated this in his press conference one day before the 10th anniversary of the 1999 referendum, where he appealed to the media to co-operate with the Government to develop East Timor.

Tempo Semanal is the only paper which criticises the Government every week. Yet the Prime Minister has never said he wants to decrease the distribution subsidies which help supply valuable news to the remote parts of East Timor. The Prime Minister still remembers his promise on August 8 2007 to support the media, because he understands the role of the media in the Indonesian times and that it will eventually change the mentalities of those in Government and society in general.

I am glad when I see university students coming from the middle- or lower-classes, rather than from the oligarchy above. They’re now observing the situation in Dili, walking past a Pajero or Hummer and asking “who owns this, who is in control?” They are questioning how power is used in East Timor, in the same way as journalists must do to find the information which the students read.

SECTION THREE: Issues Facing Investigative Journalism in East Timor

As journalists, we are still going to be committed to the people of East Timor, and uncompromising in our approach. We want international donors to look at how they are spending their taxpayers’ money, how our national Government is spending its people’s money and resources, and how much it is benefitting the people of East Timor. We want to see genuine efforts from those who say they wish to help, because foreigners have already come to our country too many times, taken what they wanted, and left us with the consequences.(after more or less 9 billion spent in East Timor what are the result? Why the number of Corruption, collusion and Nepotisms Increased? Why the poverty are increased?

Why the jobless number raised? Insurvey of world bank and Finance Miniter).

Are the East Timorese people going to be silent while the word “justice” is twisted and broken to mean something more like “abuse of power” and “nepotism” in the hands of those who we call leaders? Are East Timorese people going to be silent while World Bank advisors to their government receive outrageous salaries to be, at best ineffective, and at worst complicit, in dealing with corruption, collusion and nepotism in our public service? The advisors know there is corruption but they don’t want to talk too much about that because they don’t want to lose their contracts.

$200,000 is more than the money that is invested in roads in the district of Oecussi in one year. But it is less than the amount paid in that same year to a timorese, a World Bank-funded media officer to the Ministry of Finance, for her job of deflecting questions from journalists who want to tell the people of East Timor what is really happening behind the Ministry’s doors. This is a truth which came from one of Tempo Semanal’s investigations.

This story about World Bank advisors’ salaries is actually one of many which was almost never published. Like any newspaper, Tempo Semanal is open to threats by political and commercial interests. We found this story in April had caused someone with power to speak with the company which prints our newspaper, and the company refused (afraid) to print our edition that week. Someone was trying to silence the truth, at the expense of East Timorese people’s right to know what exactly is happening in their Government.

It can happen again, and it probably will. The East Timorese independent news media are not as strong as in other countries, and someone will always try to use their power (influence) to tell us what we can and cannot do.

Tempo Semanal has recently been hit with a charge of criminal defamation against the Minister of Justice, but the matter has still not entered court. This is one example of a very powerful person trying to force us to make our reporting softer, but instead of running scared from this issue, we welcome it. We have already asked two deputy Prime Ministers to encourage the Minister of Justice to carry on with the case, because this means that Tempo Semanal will be able to explain our stories in a court of law. We are prepared to fight, to use this opportunity to justify our position, and to prove that the Ministry of Justice has been used for corrupt purposes.

If we use this opportunity and the charges are sustained, then we know there is little chance for the truth in a court when things become political. I am prepared to go to the same jail where I was imprisoned during the Indonesian occupation for the chance to prove that our justice system has been corrupted by its own leader.

In other news, Tempo Semanal recently published a story about the referendum package which has made the Opposition quite angry and aggressive. While FRETILIN has been trying to highlight how the package is allegedly illegal, Tempo Semanal has reminded the public that many FRETILIN-linked companies (such as Hidayat) will benefit from the project.

This shows that Tempo Semanal does not just criticise the Government, much to the Opposition’s surprise. The only difference is that the current Government has never asked Tempo Semanal to change any of its stories. The Opposition has.

How is the East Timorese media going to be independent when this kind of interference happens? No matter how clearly the truth is told, the interests whom it exposes always want it to be silent.

SECTION FOUR: Future Solutions and the Sustainable Development of East Timorese News Media

This may cause us to question how much genuine support there is for developing and strengthening independent, critical East Timorese news media institutions. There have been many reports and funding applications written, but what practical outcomes have been achieved? Media development organisations should come to East Timor to support the media institutions which already exist, not to create new ones and spread journalism too thin in a country with such low literacy and media accessibility abilities. If AusAID gives $500,000 to Tempo Semanal like it’s given to the ICFJ, I will make Tempo Semanal live for 100 years, and the benefits to the people of East Timor will continue for much longer.

We at Tempo Semanal have been fortunate to receive an AusAID-funded volunteer to provide practical training on the job for our media business development staff members. We are focusing on self-sustainability to decrease our dependence on external funding, and we are looking towards the future. Like most other things in the development area, this has been a slow process, but we are very grateful for this contribution.

There are four main rules to building institutions which we are following: to establish, develop, then consolidate, and finally sustain the institutions to ensure their long-term success. This is a difficult process in any country and in any situation.

But don’t forget that we, the independent East Timorese media, must still develop ethical and sustainable businesses for ourselves in spite of the challenges which corruption and self-interest hold for the authorities, businesses, and individuals who we report about. It’s hard enough to do business properly in East Timor, but it becomes much more difficult when we try to do this with a newspaper that makes its business from exposing the corrupt businesses of others.

It is funny, but our biggest market right now is the Government. We cannot escape it in our reporting, in our business, and in our daily lives. This is the same for many East Timorese people, and explains why we need to ensure that our Government is sustainable and transparent now and into the future. For our sake, and for the sake of future generations.

So how do we make sure that the news media can work effectively to achieve this? It’s important to remember that the news media are public servants. We serve the public’s interest, and work every day to improve the quality of our national institutions. This is similar to what many international donors want in East Timor, to create a stable government and society where citizens’ rights are respected and upheld.

As I said at the beginning of this speech, I have had little formal journalism training, and have had to learn my job through experience, which has not been easy. But young East Timorese journalists now do not have to do the same as me. There is so much opportunity to help train East Timorese journalists and to build strong, independent, sustainable East Timorese media institutions. If it is done correctly, the benefits of this will flow on through the generations, across many public and private sectors, and wherever the public needs high quality, unbiased information that helps them understand what is happening in their nation.

East Timorese journalists are very interested to take part in this process. There are many young East Timorese people who want to follow in the footsteps of famous journalists who helped liberate them, who see the importance of news media today in East Timor, and who want to improve it for the future.

East Timorese journalists are quite intelligent when it comes to investigating problems with their country. They have a very strong sense of social justice, and they want to make sure that the independence they gave their blood and their lives for is not wasted through corruption, collusion and nepotism. Supporting good quality East Timorese journalism is one very good way of ensuring the public knows that corruption, collusion and nepotism will not be tolerated in this country.

Yet this must be done according to East Timorese journalists’ ideas. International donors cannot come here without observing very closely how East Timorese journalists do their work. (find out the problems, find alternative to solve the problem). A genuine effort to help East Timorese journalism means foreigners must understand what it is like to see from an East Timorese journalist’s eyes, to speak their language, and to live in their society. It is difficult to impose new ideas on East Timorese journalists if you don’t work from the ideas that they have already, because it may not suit the situation here and will not create sustainable news media development.

If it is to be done correctly, journalism development, like many other parts of the development process, must be a long-term commitment. International donors and their staff in East Timor must show local journalists that they are committed to this process until the East Timorese news media can stand on its own feet. This is the only way to build trust with Timorese journalists, who sadly must be suspicious of many things if they are to do their jobs properly.
If donors are really interested in developing East Timor’s news media institutions, they should provide assistance to work within the institutions themselves, and not to take journalists to separate buildings away from their work environments. This allows East Timorese media institutions to better determine where their own development is travelling, and for donors to intimately understand how the institutions operate.

Donors need to conduct more comprehensive monitoring and development evaluation to ensure they are producing adequate results. We should be helping journalists to study specialisation topics such as economics, agriculture, law, the environment, international relations and business, so they can better understand and report on the development that happens in their country. And, as with every donor project, we should always focus on spending taxpayers’ money as efficiently and transparently as possible.

I can give three more recommendations for future alternatives:

- Corruption: Ask the donors to talk to the Government about corruption, to raise the issue of corruption with the Government;

- Institutional capacity-building: the donors have to understand that media institutions are a new thing for East Timor and that not all institutions have proper planning. The donors should come and sit down with the media owners to plan how to properly develop and sustain the institution. To build is easy, but to develop is very hard.

- Human capacity-building: those who have an interest in strengthening the independent media should talk to overseas universities and media institutions to conduct exchanges and intensive visits to these institutions, like what we have been conducting with Fairfax Media in Australia. The six journalists who have recently visited us left something special here, a solidarity and lasting impression with our journalists that has motivated them to improve how they do their jobs.

Furthermore, our media institutions need to be in control of their own assets. There is a political party which has obtained a printing press, and they have approached me to ask if I want to use it to publish Tempo Semanal. If the commercial printing company which we use to print our newspaper keeps being intimidated by authorities and they stop printing Tempo Semanal, will we be forced to use a political party’s printing press to publish our journalism?

After ten years, the media is not yet independent as we expected. In the next few years, we would like to see a stronger, more mature and independent news media to help secure this nation’s development for many years to come. We need support to do this and have been receiving it, but this support has not really come in the way we want. So we need to readjust the way the media is being supported in East Timor and to do that, we need a dialogue.

Thank you.
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