[TimorLesteStudies] Publication: The Voice of East Timor: Journalism, Ideology, and the Struggle for Independence

jennifer.drysdale at anu.edu.au jennifer.drysdale at anu.edu.au
Wed Sep 12 10:20:28 EST 2007

The Voice of East Timor: Journalism, Ideology, and the Struggle for 
Author: Janet Steele, George Washington University, 
Published in:  Asian Studies Review, Volume 31, Issue 3 September 2007, pages 
261 - 282

The article does not have an abstract so here are the first few paras:

Much has been written about the role of media in the struggle for independence 
in Timor Leste. Scholars and activists have pointed out how mainstream 
American and Australian media were first silent and then complicit in the 1975 
invasion and occupation of East Timor by Indonesian forces (Tiffen, 2001; 
Nevins, 2005). A recent wave of memoirs published by international journalists 
who wrote about East Timor under Indonesian rule has revealed not only the 
horror of the violence, but also the courage of Timorese sources, who in many 
cases risked their lives to tell their stories (Cristalis, 2002; Greenlees and 
Garran, 2002). David Hill has shown how guerilla fighters and their overseas 
sympathisers used the Internet to carry the battle for independence to a 
potentially broader readership in cyberspace (Hill, 2002), and anguished 
accounts of the 1999 referendum and its bloody aftermath have told of 
unspeakable acts of brutality and even “madness” (Parry, 2005). Journalists 
were so essential to Timor Leste’s struggle for independence that in 1999 
Jose´ Ramos Horta was quoted as saying that the new nation should dedicate a 
park to the memory of the eight foreign journalists who died in the pursuit of 
Timorese played key roles in facilitating the research for many of these 
articles and memoirs – as “fixers”, as sources, as witnesses. Ironically, 
however, virtually none of the Timorese who appear in these accounts are 
working journalists, and the local Timorese press gets almost no mention at 
A number of factors both internal and external to Timor Leste have 
inadvertently conspired to render invisible the mainstream Timorese press 
under Indonesian occupation. Although Timorese journalists – working primarily 
for the newspaper Suara Timor Timur [The Voice of East Timor] – made what are 
widely regarded as enormous contributions to a sense of East Timorese 
nationhood, these achievements have been overlooked not only by international 
scholars, but also by the country’s current government. Ironically, as the 
violence and brutality of the Indonesian occupation become enshrined in 
history, the contributions of journalists who struggled to do their jobs while 
remaining independent have been forgotten. The current political leadership – 
many of whom lived overseas during the Indonesian occupation – has little 
interest in celebrating the courage and independence of Timorese journalists 
who worked under very difficult conditions during Soeharto’s rule. The fact 
that Suara Timor Timur was owned by Salvador J. Ximenes Soares – a member of 
Indonesia’s legislative assembly and a supporter of “integration” with 
Indonesia – has compounded the problem, and led foreign scholars and some 
international aid agencies not only to dismiss Salvador as a “collaborator” 
but also to overlook the contributions of the journalists who worked for the 
newspaper he owned. 
This article seeks to redress the balance. It focuses on the relationship 
between journalism and the development of national identity in East Timor, 
beginning with the founding of the newspaper Suara Timor Timur in 1993. 
Although Suara Timor Timur was an “Indonesian” newspaper, and thus subject to 
the repressive and often capricious rules that governed the press under 
Soeharto, it also managed in many ways to live up to the pledge implicit in 
its name: to be “the voice of East Timor”. Timorese journalists who worked at 
STT during the years of Indonesian occupation recall with pride practising a 
kind of subterranean journalism that presented subtle challenges to the 
government’s point of view. The journalists’ understanding that their 
profession required them to report truthfully in ways that often contradicted 
the Indonesian government and military intensified after Soeharto’s 
resignation in 1998, and came to a head during the violent and highly 
polarised period of the 1999 referendum. I argue that in taking this critical 
stance, journalists in East Timor illustrate what Adam Jones has called “the 
moral economy of journalism” (Jones, 2002). 
This article draws on both qualitative and quantitative methods to analyse the 
way that journalists have defined themselves and their role in East Timor. My 
starting assumption was that the most useful way to read and understand Suara 
Timor Timur was as a newspaper that would have much in common with its 
Indonesian counterparts. Thus in reading Suara Timor Timur I followed the same 
method that I did in reading Tempo magazine: I read through approximately 200 
randomly selected editions of the newspaper published prior to Soeharto’s 
resignation in May 1998.2 I then followed this preliminary reading with a 
closer textual analysis of coverage of about 25 key events. I chose these 
events because former STT reporters and editors recalled them as having been 
especially “controversial” or “sensitive”. I supplemented this content 
analysis with interviews of approximately 30 Timorese journalists, activists 
and public officials. A further content analysis of page-one articles 
published in 1999 allowed me to compare the journalists’ recollections of what 
happened during the referendum period with what had actually appeared in the 
newspaper. I conclude with a discussion of the challenges facing journalists 
in East Timor today, and some preliminary observations about the direction of 
Timorese journalism after independence. Not only do newspapers in East Timor 
face crushing economic pressures; they must also struggle with the 
consequences of a government language policy that has severely reduced the 
market for newspapers while raising fundamental questions about the shape and 
definition of Timorese news. 

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