01 February 2009

Freedom of speech fighter

WA Today 31 January 2009 - 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.

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. Tortured.

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.

Image: Jose Antonio Belo Photo: Pat Scala

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