Subject: Rewriting Timor's Past

The Australian May 16, 2002

Rewriting Timor's past

By Eric Ellis * Dili

A WARRIOR of the East Timor Defence Force stands guard outside the offices of Aderito Hugo da Costa, editor-in-chief of Dili's Timor Post.

The soldier's teeth are stained with betel. He looks wild, as if he's just stepped away from a jungle guerilla campaign. Indeed, he may well have. East Timor's troops were mostly hard men from Falintil, the armed wing of the Marxist Frente Revolucionario de Timor L'Este Independente, or Fretilin, who fought the anti-Indonesian independence struggle for 24 years.

He's guarding his boss, who is briefing da Costa on security plans for this coming week -- East Timor's independence week.

Although only 30, da Costa's independence credentials are impeccable. His father was a Fretilin fighter who died when da Costa, a political science graduate from Dili university, was young. Too young to really remember a non-Indonesian East Timor, da Costa is no less a patriot.

That's why, he says, in August 1999 he and 12 staff walked away from East Timor's only other daily newspaper, Suara Timor Timur, (STT, or Sound of East Timor). The paper's title provides a clue as to why da Costa, then the managing editor, walked.

"The editor came into our office and said we weren't to publish anything but a pro-Indonesian line on the referendum," da Costa recalls, referring to the August 30, 1999 UN-sponsored poll that erupted into militia violence but which gave the East Timorese self-determination.

A quiet and serious man, da Costa calls it a "dark experience".

The former STT has since been re-named Suara Timor Lorosae, acknowledging the official Tetum name of the new nation. But Salvador Ximenes Soares, 45, a one-time Indonesian parlimentarian representing disgraced President Suharto's Golkar party in East Timor and secretary-general of the biggest pro-integration group in Dili, remains as chief editor and publisher.

With his back-slapping ebullience, Soares is in sharp contrast to da Costa. Soares denies there was a split in his newsroom over policy in 1999. In fact, he says, he was going to fire the reporters because times were tough.

Soares has been a journalist since the 1970s, after the Indonesian invasion, starting as a stringer for various Jakarta dailies. His STT first published in 1993, with support from the respected Jakarta daily, Kompas. Never known to question Jakarta's activities in East Timor, it published until September 3, 1999, the height of the militia violence. Its pro-Jakarta stance didn't impress the militia, which trashed the newsroom.

The STT didn't publish again until July 31, 2000, when it was re-born as Suara Timor Lorosae. Soares is now busily de-emphasising his Indonesian past. Sometimes he goes too far, as on May 1, May Day, when the STL produced a rather bizarre sole page in English, a re-print of a Marxist text taken from the internet and plonked on the page.

Still, neither da Costa nor Soares have it easy as newspaper publishers in East Timor. At $US50c a copy, their papers' cover price is about half the average daily earnings of 70 per cent of East Timorese.

The Timor Post began publication on February 29, 2000. Da Costa says the paper has missed a few days and sometimes its 1500 circulation has been photocopied rather than printed. There are 25 staff including 12 journalists.

Both papers receive aid in the form of computers and office equipment from the US and Canadian governments. Australia's News Ltd, publisher of The Australian, has provided training and plans to send a $1 million printing press to the Timor Post. And then there's the cost of producing pages in four languages: the main Timorese Tetum dialect, Bahasa Indonesia, Portuguese and English. News judgment in both papers seems fairly robust, more so in the Post.

Despite their different journalistic backgrounds, Costa says the local media's challenge in an independent East Timor is to adopt a more professional position. Soares agrees.

"The independence struggle has been won. Now we have to behave like an independent media."


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