Subject: IPS: A Daily Becomes the Prime Minister's Punching Bag

A Daily Becomes the Prime Minister's Punching Bag

Sonny Inbaraj

BANGKOK, Mar 9 (IPS) - Press freedom in the world's newest nation, East Timor, is under attack with a major daily newspaper being harassed by the government after it reported on famine deaths in the island.

Early this month, 'Suara Timor Lorosae', or 'STL', reported that a food crisis has affected thousands of East Timorese in the Los Palos, Suai, Ainaro and Manufahi districts. The daily said that in one village alone in Ainaro, at least 50 people have died from hunger.

While food shortages are not uncommon for the East Timorese especially during drought periods, reports this year have raised concerns that the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is neglecting remote villages in the island.

What irks Alkatiri is that the daily's report comes at a time when a number of voices have been raised to draw attention to his poor governance.

The bishop of Dili, Dom Alberto Ricardo da Silva, recently said that the country was suffering from corruption and a lack of openness and the East Timorese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Carlos Ximenes Belo has publicly expressed his concern about the famine problem.

Last week, the premier reacted by ordering all government departments to boycott 'STL'. He also withdrew all government advertising from the daily and banned all its journalists from attending official press conferences.

Alkatiri also incited people to stop buying the paper. Portuguese news agency 'Lusa' reported him as justifying the boycott by saying, ''We have the right to maintain relations with the serious and independent press but not with propagandists who have no objectivity.''

On Wednesday, a petition was signed by over 50 East Timorese journalists indicating the prime minister had violated constitutional provisions that guaranteed press freedom.

''We are disappointed with the prime minister's actions. What he's doing to 'STL' is against the constitution,'' local journalist Jose Antonio Belo told IPS in a phone interview.

''We have to be united and not compromise in telling the truth... we are offering our solidarity to one another in these difficult times,'' added Belo.

For 25 years, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia. The Timorese in a United Nations- sponsored referendum opted for independence in late August 1999 and East Timor became independent in May 2002, after a two-year interim administration led by the United Nations.

But the newly independent East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world. Basic income, literacy and health are among the world's lowest. According to the United Nations Development Programme, with a total population of more than 800,000, East Timor has a per capita annual income of only 478 U.S. dollars.

'STL's' reports have also been verified by non-governmental organisations.

Manuela Pereira, an activist with Fokupers, the East Timorese Women's Communication Forum, based in Dili, said starvation is a burning issue now in the country.

Recently she visited Suai district, about 300 kilometers southeast of the capital Dili and said she witnessed people there suffering from hunger.

''In Suai, people are so desperate for food that they are forced to sell their houses at bargain prices - as low as 120 dollars -- to be able to buy rice,'' revealed Pereira.

Alkatiri's harassment of 'STL' has also been brought to the attention of the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), which in a letter to the prime minister said: ''The boycott and threats against privately-owned publications are methods that are unworthy of a democratic government.''

''We urge you to put an end to all the restrictions imposed on Suara Timor Lorosae'', added the worldwide press freedom organisation.

Meanwhile the Bangkok-based South-east Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) reported that Prime Minister Alkatiri is also trying to have the newspaper evicted from its offices.

SEAPA in a statement said East Timor's Land and Property Department had ordered 'STL' to leave its present premises in Dili within 60 days.

President of the Timor Lorosae Journalists' Association (TLJA), Virgilio da Silva Guterres, told SEAPA that the TLJA would investigate the matter to see if the government's eviction order was a manoeuvre to curtail press freedom in the country.

Alkatiri's disdain towards the media became a cause of concern last May when he ordered the expulsion of Australian freelance journalist Julian King.

Police arrested the freelance journalist on May 6 close to his home in the capital. He was held for two days in the central police station and the authorities said they had found ammunitions at his house.

During a search they seized files, including a U.N. report on corruption in East Timor. The journalist was at first told his residency papers were not in order and was then threatened with legal action for ''possessing weapons'' and ''subversion''.

Prime Minister Alkatiri made several public statements against the journalist. ''He is abusing our tolerance, he is not a journalist and he has his own agenda to subvert state institutions,'' he said. He also accused King of taking part in torching his home during a riot in December 2002.

But in June, a court in Dili cleared him of charges brought by the police. The appeal court had ordered the return of King's passport, refused to remand him in custody and ruled that the police did not have sufficient evidence against him.

However, soon after the court's decision, he was deported to Australia on the orders of the interior ministry.

''The only established wrong committed by King was that he upset the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri,'' said RSF. ''This contempt for the courts did nothing to enhance the standing of the country's first democratic government.''

Added RSF: ''It is a real disappointment for our organisation to see the prime minister of a country - held up for several years as a model in Asia of respect for press freedom - accusing a foreign journalist of rioting and destabilisation.'' (END/2005)

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