Subject: A. Sampaio speech at transparency conference
International Conference on Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration Dili, 13 & 14 of November 2003, Dili, East Timor
“Who’s afraid of the big bad journalist?” By Antonio Sampaio Bureau Chief, Lusa Portuguese News Agency, Dili, Timor-Leste
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
I would like to begin this discussion with a challenge. Or perhaps, respecting my journalist credentials, with a series of questions? How many of the people in this room, or more specifically how many of the journalists in this room, can tell me exactly what each member of government is doing at this time? What any member of government, for that matter, is doing right now? How many are actually in their office? Or in Dili? Or in the country?
And here lies the first problem… If we don’t know where they are, how can we possibly now what they are doing? What was signed today? How many jobs were created? How is the money being spent? Who is in charge of ensuring illegal markets don’t continue to spring up? Or that selling cattle just before you enter the most expensive street in Dili, might not look good when foreign dignitaries visit? What has happened to the countless reports the Inspector General produced in an effort to ensure transparency? Did they simply remain in house, read exclusively by the people in charge of the people he investigated? What do they actually do in the recently recovered building in Caicoli labeled “Statistics Department”, seeing as the government actually never releases any statistics? Are people paying electricity now, with the gorgeous new meters?
Or for that matter, changing my focus group (if my development jargon is correct): How many boards of inquiry investigations in New York jargon has the UN produced in East Timor? What were they even about? I only have one… and believe me, it is an interesting read… How are the plans for post-UNMISET? How is recruitment of staff going? How are things now after that little hic-up with the former Dili district police commander’s resignation? Was New York very upset when the Prime-Minister said the UN had to follow orders?
The problem is clearly not only of the government, understandable even because of lack of systems, procedures, human and financial resources. What is surprising is that most of the large numbers of international organizations present in the country as this seminar is an example regularly promote issues of transparency and then don’t practice what they preach. What has the World Bank done this year? What did the IMF do? And the ADB? Has UNHCR closed its doors, FAO, ILO, IOM, UNESCO? How about all the large NGOs? Or the small ones, for that matter?
I was very happy to hear, yesterday, the SRSG, ambassador Sharma, warning the East Timorese of the importance of open and transparent governance in the development process. He went on to say that “the continuing encouragement for transparency and accountability within public administration are inevitable for ongoing development in Timor-Leste”. How about applying those same rules internally, at the UN structures, and practicing them publicly, through the media? Is the UN legitimate in asking for transparency from an inadequately equipped government when itself, with its mega structures, does often display a serious fear of being discussed in the public arena?
How about the recommendation from international experts who have discussed, in this seminar, the need for protection for whistleblowers? Does that apply to ensuring that UN staff who complain to journalists about problems they perceive, avoid disciplinary action, internal punishment or banishment from future missions?
The fact is that these institutions, as with the largest one in the country UNMISET appear committed to closure rather than towards transparency. Information about major issues is very sparingly shared with journalists, perhaps attempting to portray the continued success in its own interpretation of the East Timor transition. Instead of open debates of problems, instead of regular background briefings, it chooses silence. May I remind everyone of the total number of press conferences given on the 4th of December riots exactly when the UN was one of the major targets of criticism: if my memory serves me correctly, I think it was exactly… none.
Information becomes a tool to sell an image - of the kind ‘new contingent arrives, another departs, what a wonderful job they did’; or ‘a donor has given something else and that is great’ or information becomes an instrument to assuage criticism or controversy of the type ‘the UN reaffirms its commitment to… or “that article in Lusa is a blatant lie”…. I have kept every single document I received, begged for and was given, through official or non-official channels, since 1999. And for organizations that produce so much paper work, it is surprising that I have only filled out 25 or so large folders. And please don’t blame the messenger. Media staff in your office will only, on most occasions, pass on the information you tell them to or the information they have.
Sure, if a journalist goes to any of these structures they will give you lots of paper work. Sometimes, surprisingly, they even have large offices just to do this sort of thing. But when does a journalist need to go there? Every day? Every week? Through a lottery system? Or should we seek Microsoft’s sponsorship? Maybe they can tell us: “where can you go today”. Sure we get a briefing every week. Sure all questions can be asked and might be answered, with more or less diplomacy. Sure all documents are public. But where do we get them from? When? Who do you call?
Another example: a development partners meeting has come and gone, another development partners meeting is coming and in between them all we heard were vague reports of visits by assessment missions, of reviews to matrixes, TSPs, and a far too numerous set of other letters… a budget was presented and no press conferences to explain it were called. Two quarters are up, results are known and no media kits, or copies of the public documents were sent, as a matter or normal course, to media organizations. Not even a phone call saying that we can go and pick up the documents. I only recently got a copy of this year’s budget… and only because a source got me the document to point out some alleged problems and concerns about government expenditure and funds management. But soon, when the donor’s conference comes about, the day it starts, journalists will be given a huge pile of documents and a few hours later be expected to sit in a press conference and ask intelligent, profound questions about what the large folder says.
And then people complain the population is badly informed. And they promote expensive and detailed studies, with numerous experts and consultants, to confirm this obviousness… when all they need to do is to ask a journalist. What to make of this in a country where journalists are also in the process of setting up their own institutions? Where there are no specialist reporters? Where substance is always abandoned in the pursuit of joyous launches, lunches and PR exercises, full of thanks from whoever is receiving and of praise from whoever is giving.
In East Timor, the good journalists are those who are lucky enough to fall over the stories. Or whose phone number is in enough hands of enough of those who don’t particularly like the government or have a scoop to sell, or at least a little bit of gossip. There are no regular information channels for journalists, and major issues are presented without any substance in mega productions and ceremonies or through the countless seminars and conferences that grow faster than the Timor Sea revenue. We even get to sit in seminars discussing theories about how Timor can get to 2020 when we are not even sure where exactly it is now.
Far are the days prior to 1999 when news reached you instantly, even when the country was closed to journalists and when telling you what was happening could place your source in mortal danger. The Indonesians left more than 4 years ago, yet information continues to be shared as if there is a dominant clandestine movement. Sometimes even simple agenda events are communicated in hushed tones as if the fact that a minister is going on an overseas trip is a secret… “Have you heard? There is going to be another seminar…”
Having been based here for almost five years, having know and worked with the East Timorese for nearly 15, I continue to be surprised by the fact that information crucial in the struggle for independence remains so complicated to get now, after independence.
Or why it’s so hard for people who work with the media to build up relationships of trust. An example… a political report is to be launched next week. In small East Timor a political report serves many purposes and if you want to ensure that it doesn't get out you have only two options: don’t distribute it to no one, and that means no one, or distribute it to the media with a nice large sticker on the front saying: embargo. Even if I get, ethically I won’t report it. If neither option is followed, don’t be surprised if one of the copies gets to a journalist.
Instead of theory, I have chosen, in this paper, to present some examples. And I will continue to do so. I decided earlier on to avoid snipes at the whole issue of language… or, I could have reminded you, kind listeners, that one of the very few press releases issued this year, in Portuguese, by the foreign affairs ministry, was a threat to sue a Portuguese media organization and a journalist…. I think it has all been settle now, I hope.
Avoiding, therefore, references to the controversial issue of language… let’s look at how the institutions are, specifically, performing.
The only press office that seems to work is that of the President. Media releases are a regular occurrence, notices for press conferences are given in advance, trips overseas are described in some detail, a daily agenda is provided, on most “busy” news days. Statements of the President have even been issued with an embargo, a novelty for most of the people who work with the media and it has even began to issue information through SMS.
Parliament, on the other hand, comes and goes without producing any material for the media. News only happened because of the one-way traffic of journalists. We go there and get them. But we can’t possibly be there every day, every hour of the plenary. What about all the rest that is happening? Why not have some regular briefings? Why not produce regular information sheets? Why not inform journalists of major debates coming up? Why is it that the only media release issued this year by the major party in parliament strictly related to the work of the parliament - was, ironically, to deny a media report. Suggesting that the journalist had misinterpreted what was going on because he was outside of the country. Interesting… as a journalist I heard that justification for many years in my coverage about East Timor… but never from an East Timorese.
I'll ignore the justice system, I have written enough about it. I could tell you about the police, that announce very little except when journalists ask them or Defense, the most publicly silent Secretariat of State… I am fortunate. Almost every time I have asked to interview, speak, meet, a government member I have received a positive reply. I can never argue that I don’t have access to government. I clearly do, a lot more than in most countries. I can even get into their offices... But I can’t possibly call every member of government and ask him or her, every day, what’s new. Or in my case what’s news? Not least of which because they might be overseas… and Timor Telecom is yet to introduce roaming…
In its relationship with the media, this is a government that chooses to react instead of acting. That chooses damage control instead of damage prevention. That waits for the opposition to attack it to respond, that waits for accusations of corruption to become blasé and doesn't clear them up, that has so far only revealed publicly the result of one internal investigation. That prefers the rumor mill to continue to self-perpetuate instead of clearing it up with detailed, informative and regular background conversations with journalists. That skims over controversies in hurried doorstops as it moves, behind security cars and police lights from office to conference, from seminar to launch. That doesn't even sell well what it is achieving. Or why it is not…. An applause to the Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs, and occasionally Finance… thanks for your press releases.
We are now almost one year to the date that the East Timorese government promised that, within days, the report on the investigations of the 4th of December riots would be made public. Yet no concrete information has been provided. Not even a sanitised version of it is available. I learned recently that a report on the investigation conducted by the United Nations mission itself on the same issue has also been produced and sent to New York. Yet no word of that report has been made public. Perhaps they never will. Or perhaps we will get them on the one year anniversary celebrations. Maybe we can have a seminar to discuss them.
Why not learn from the fiasco that was the handling of the controversial death of scientist David Kelly in England. A few heads had to roll but the government finally saw the crisis as a clear demonstration of the importance of transparency and openness. A report on the issue, produced for government, recommended the creation of a new post of permanent secretary with responsibility for communications across government. Equally, almost all documents related to the enquiry more than one thousand - were not only made available to journalists but to the public a large. And apart from the information itself it interestingly also served another purpose: it allowed a mere mortal to begin to understand the complexities of government. And that can only be good. It might even help the government to explain why solving some problems is so complex and difficult.
Because a recent poll showed the East Timorese trust the United States more than any other nation, I chose an article by J. M. Balkin, from Yale University. He argues that “without mass media, openness and accountability are impossible in contemporary democracies”. Yet he warns that mass media “can hinder political transparency as well as help it. Politicians and political operatives can simulate the political virtues of transparency through rhetorical and media manipulation”. And he goes on to say that “stories about political strategy, political infighting, political scandal and the private lives of politicians tend to crowd out less entertaining stories about substantive policy questions”. Where have I seen that before…
In East Timor, the contact with the media is, more often than not, through carefully managed and staged media affairs. But for Balkin, “media events can be construed as methods of manipulating political transparency”, appearing “almost as political exhibitionism simulating effective governance and personal candour. By demanding our attention, and the attention of the news media, media events appear to offer us substantive information although what they actually offer is largely political image and showmanship. Less substance, few detailed answers”.
To ensure that all those people who used to answer my calls continue to do so, after this paper, let me now look at the other side. This is a two way street, and we can’t possibly ignore the journalists. And despite the fact that Timor-Leste was recently listed as only two places below my own country in the list of countries with media independence, clearly a few problems remains.
There is no class solidarity, no functioning sector institutions, no press council, no guarantee that a person with a press card is a journalist… I am yet to understand exactly what the Journalist’s Association does, apart from a seminar I remember a few years back. And I know even less of the supposed Journalists Union, apart from what was said at its launch, also a long while ago. So, it is not surprising that a journalist is attacked and his or her colleagues laugh. A media organization is sued and others joke. A microphone is trust into someone’s face and then the words are simply splashed onto the page. No background, no news memory, no reminding the readers that only yesterday that same person said something completely different. Rumors are not checked. Defamation becomes news. Analysis are based on a single off-the cuff remark. Credibility weakens. And then we become easy targets. Journalists become lumped into being either the voice of government or of the opposition, depending on who is attacking you in that particular instance.
The relationship between media and power, or government, continues to be hotly debated. But in that debate it is evident that media is also power. In East Timor, as the media changes from activism to solid information source, this becomes especially important. To demand that politicians get their act together we must begin to work as much within the politicians as among the journalists, acknowledging that rights come loaded with complicated responsibilities. Even in strong democracies, there is a tendency for government, state, and power, to be seen as the enemy. In East Timor, where all institutions are especially young and fragile, this reality is even more significant. Journalists and the media have, in East Timor and in its development, a crucial role to play, adopting their duty as partners and contributing in the dissemination of key information about the ongoing process. To take on this role, this partnership, without abandoning the role of constant vigilance, of checking, of constructive criticism will only give added credibility. To blame, to attack is easy and second nature. To do it constructively while attempting to respect professionalism, ethics and deontology is much more complicated.
The fact is that, irrespective of whether government likes it or not, whether or not they are open in their disclosure of information, news will get out and negative information in particular will always reach journalists. Some of my best friends - and perhaps even more some of my worst friends - will have noticed this by now. Be it a government reshuffle that is kept hidden, a letter that perhaps shouldn't have been sent, a court decision that troubles everyone involved, the results of the first political survey in the country, a major report that travels in secret to New York. News will get out, sooner or later. All you need is to know one of the only two people who have seen the particular piece of paper you are after… Or both.
So what now? Do we need a stronger, clearer, a more adequate legal framework for journalists to operate in, ensuring that both journalists and others feel secure? Yes. Do we need a greater awareness of journalists in East Timor of basic ethic and deontological principles? Yes. But, perhaps more so, we need government to act as all its public statements on this issue argue it does. There needs to be more media releases, an office where journalists can go to get information about government. A simple email service to tell journalists what the member of government has on the agenda for that day.
Perhaps it will be useful to look next door, as has become increasingly politically correct to do so, and paraphrase Mark Baird, from the World Bank in Jakarta. In 2000, in a conference on a theme quite like this one, he argued that the press in Indonesia played a critical role in the reform process. He asked what could have been achieved “had the media not been free to report on the government, on politics, on corruption, collusion and nepotism? The media in Indonesia was a catalyst for change, challenging governments -- and institutions such as Parliament, the World Bank, and IMF, as well as the private sector -- to be increasingly open and accountable for their actions”.
His recommendation: “the press must continue to play this unique role - both in building awareness and knowledge of public and private sector practices - and in building expertise, experience, and professionalism among their colleagues”. This will establish, he argues “a well-educated press corps able to hold public and private sector institutions - as well as itself - accountable to standards of transparency and responsibility”.
After all this, it almost seems rhetorical to state that a free and pluralistic media is essential for transparent and accountable political and economic systems. “It must be confident, vibrant, entertaining, surprising, pro-active, balanced and informed. It should scrutinise governments and corporations, but also international organisations and the donor communities themselves”. And I just quoted the results of another conference such as this, held in Argentina.
“Media helps set the agenda and influence public debate. It can empower individuals and communities and contribute to good government, promoting political transparency and accountability”. Another quote, this time from South Africa.
So, I ask, if the media, as a resource, can do all this, why not use it to its full potential in East Timor? After all, journalists are constantly hearing about the lack of resources, are they not?
And as any journalist would, I will end with those questions… and perhaps wait for yours.