Subject: Freedom (of speech) fighter - Jose Belo
Freedom (of speech) fighter
January 31, 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.
Belo was three years old when Indonesia invaded East Timor, then a Portuguese colony, in December 1975. Like much of the population, his family fled to the hills. The early years of the occupation were the harshest a time of famine, bombardment and military encirclement.
At the end of the 1970s his family was captured and returned to their home town, Baucau, where Belo went to school before attending university in Dili. There he was part of the clandestine resistance movement, giving political support to the pro-independence fighters still in the mountains.
In January 1995, aged 23, he was arrested when 30 students staged a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of independence leader and now Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, and to remind delegates to UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia and Portugal that the East Timorese themselves deserved a say in their future.
The demonstration was met by 200 police and soldiers and it was here foreign witnesses saw Belo thrown into the back of a police truck. He spent the next 18 months in jail.
Released, but facing continued persecution, he went back to the mountains in August 1996, where he joined guerillas led by David Alex, a famed resistance fighter and a man Belo calls "my hero".
In their mountain camps they would talk of the future and what they would do when their country was free. Belo's dream, inspired by Alex, was to become a journalist.
"In the bush we discussed our struggle and our fight, and the struggle East Timor was going to face after independence," says Belo.
"David Alex 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.' "
They talked of the role of journalists: how after 1975, when six Australian-based reporters were killed by the invading Indonesian army, East Timor's story was untold, "in the darkness"; and how in 1991, filmmaker Max Stahl's footage of the Dili massacre put the country's plight "back on the map".
Belo's main task in the resistance was to act as an interpreter for visiting foreign journalists, and to smuggle out documents, tapes and videos.
His nom de guerre in the resistance was a local word for sandalwood. Just as sandalwood was a precious export from Timor, so too was the news he sent to the outside world.
Belo and Alex also talked about the plight of Indonesians, then under the Suharto dictatorship, and how they suffered because of the corruption and greed of their leaders.
So in a guerilla camp, Belo resolved that after independence he would become a journalist, "a bridge between our leaders and the people".
Freedom, at this stage, was two trying years and a final vengeful cataclysm away.
In June 1997 Indonesian troops captured Belo, while Alex "disappeared" killed. Belo spent another year in various military detention centres.
Released, he resumed his work with the resistance and the foreign media in the run-up to the 1999 UN-organised vote on independence.
When the vote went against Jakarta, the Indonesian armed forces and their local militias took revenge, laying waste to the country and murdering up to 1500 civilians.
Belo and a handful of foreign reporters refused to be evacuated and provided graphic footage of Dili burning footage that helped compel Australia to send an intervention force.
From late 1999 until 2006 he worked as a correspondent and cameraman with Associated Press, the ABC, SBS and Channel Seven.
In 2006, with $500 of his own money, a $1000 donation and one computer, he founded his own weekly newspaper, Tempo Semanal. Now, with rising circulation and foreign support, including from staff at Fairfax Media, it employs 20 staff.
"We focus on investigative reporting," Belo says.
"We annoyed the (former) Fretilin government and now we annoy the (current coalition) Government, and other organisations, like the World Bank and foreign embassies," he says.
"They think we're troublemakers, and the Government says we're trying to bring them down. But no, that is not what we do."
A particular focus has been widespread corruption, which spreads from the lowest levels of bureaucracy to, it appears, ministerial offices.
It's a problem acknowledged by foreign agencies, including the World Bank and watchdogs such as Transparency International, which rate East Timor among the world's worst offenders.
The story that has landed Belo in his latest trouble was published on October 12 last year.
Tempo Semanal had a page one scoop, the result of months of investigation, interviews and a stunning leak of ministerial mobile phone text messages.
The story alleged Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts, relating to rebuilding the walls at Dili's Becora prison and supplying uniforms to prison guards.
The story cited leaked text messages on Lobato's ministerial phone, including exchanges with a company that ultimately won the $US1 million prison wall contract. Some of the exchanges took place before tenders were officially called.
Lobato, who has denied any wrongdoing, lodged a formal complain with the prosecutor-general.
She accused the paper of violating her privacy and breaching the journalists' code of ethics, and attacked Belo, saying he was trying to bring down the Government.
On December 12 Belo received a formal notification of charges, which would be prosecuted under Indonesia's Penal Code, parts of which are still in force while East Timor's own code, which would decriminalise defamation, has not been enacted.
Prosecutors have told Belo he faces charges under articles 310, 311, and 312 of the Indonesian code. The cumulative penalty is up to six years' jail and fines.
Two weeks ago he was questioned for three hours by prosecutors, who denied him access to relevant documents and asked him to name the source of the leak.
He is unclear when the charges will go to court.
"I'm quite pessimistic about this case, because the minister has a lot of power," Belo says. "We are like an ant trying to fight against an elephant."
Belo sees the prosecution as a test of Prime Minister Gusmao's stated commitment to stamp out corruption and uphold press freedom two issues Gusmao mentioned in his 2007 inaugural speech.
Promising to act against corruption, Gusmao vowed to create "a culture of integrity, rigour, and professionalism in public administration".
On the role of the press, he declared: "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."
Belo says it is also a test of the independence of prosecutors and the judiciary in ending a culture of official impunity for senior figures accused of wrongdoing, including instigating the politically motivated violence that racked the country in 2006.
"In my country a chicken thief can go to prison, but those who were responsible for the deaths of people, they are having holidays in Bali and flying off abroad," he says.
He says that if he has to go to jail "I'm ready for that", but he worries about the future of his paper and the type of journalism it will produce.
"Some of my friends are starting to ask if we can do this type of story in the future. Some say we could do soft stories, so we won't get into trouble. It will cost something."
He recalls his talks in the guerilla camp with David Alex, who defined corruption as when state money disappears and the people are made poor.
"This will affect journalists very much. How will they come out with strong stories?
"And the Government? It's a test case. Will they respect or implement the freedom of the media?
"That is their commitment and promise. Or is it only like a pop singer, singing a sweet song but not really meaning it?"