Sat, 13 May 2000

Filling the desperate need for information in East Timor

By Ati Nurbaiti

JAKARTA (JP): On a typical work day in Lalenok newsroom in Dili, reporters line up waiting their turn on the one computer in the office. "Hey, aren't you done yet," shouts one of them.

His colleague is a "two-finger" typist, plodding across the keyboard with two fingers, as the rest of the staff give up and doze off in the heat.

Some of the staff at Lalenok practically live at the office, receiving donations entitled to them as refugees in this coastal city. Lalenok (Mirror) hits the streets three times a week at a price of Rp 5,000 per copy.

The few hundred copies printed each edition are quickly grabbed up, with some readers grumbling they had to purchase the 12-page magazine for Rp 6,000 from cheeky vendors.

Then distributors ask for more copies, which reach readers in photocopy form. "We just can't deliver" said chief editor Virgilio da Silva Guterres during a recent visit here. "When the toner for the copier runs out we can't do anything, it can only be bought in Darwin."

The publication is one of a few which have started in Dili, including Talit@kum. There is a daily, Timor Pos, run by editors and staff of the former Suara Timor Timur (STT) which in the months leading up to the referendum in the territory was the only newspaper in the former Indonesian province.

"We have six pages but only four for stories because two pages are taken up by advertisements," says Alderito Hugo da Costa, who managed STT until he and his staff were forced into hiding. Advertisements on ongoing construction projects and new restaurants reflect the few signs of life returning to the city.

Following the massive destruction after last August's historic self-determination referendum leading to the birth of the new nation of Timor Lorosa'e, most people were virtually cut off from all information, which earlier had been obtained from the television and radio.

With transmitters being part of the general destruction of the territory, word of mouth is now the main source of information.

Dili residents are faring somewhat better, having access to a few newsletters from the United Nations and several private groups. Now student activists, former students and the Timorese press have begun the first independent publications for the information-thirsty public.

They are working with donations and their raw skills to put out their photocopy publications, sold far below the cost of production.

While continuing to meet deadlines, chief editors are seeking cooperation with Indonesia's established press organizations to have staff members get a month or so of training in reporting, advertising and media management.

Also needed is training in setting up computer networks. The lobbying of international organizations continues to obtain donations for printing equipment, more computers and other needs, while the editors rack their brains trying to find ways to meet other costs, such as paying their staffs.

"I wouldn't be as reckless as you guys," Hugo da Costa said of the start-up publications, as quoted by Virgilio. With photocopying costs at Rp 1,000 per page, the 40-page Talit@kum, for instance, should be sold at Rp 40,000, but is sold at Rp 10,000 -- the same as the price of color newsmagazines in neighboring Indonesia.

Even at this price readers still complain, understandable given their struggle to restore their lives, homes and families.

The ex-students in the media face the challenge of proving themselves able to be independent -- "the professionals look down on us, assuming students can't be impartial," Virigilio told The Jakarta Post.

Many working at the new publications were supporters of the proindependence movement, many others just wanted to finish their studies and like most Timorese, many were divided between "prointegration" and "proindependence" within their families and neighborhoods.

Virgilio himself was among those arrested and jailed following the 1991 Santa Cruz shooting. Last year he was an engineering student at a university in Jakarta and was active in the Timorese student movement.

Trying to become an independent publication was always a difficult task in the former East Timor. The one publication, STT, faced many protests from both those in the proindependence and prointegration camps.

Their office was attacked at least twice -- in the destruction following the ballot everything went up in flames, including the new iron door installed after an assault in April last year.

The official Indonesian news agency, Antara, was not spared either, although its reporters were relatively "safe" when others were intimidated.

"Antara is likely to be attacked soon," read one of its last Dili-based reports. "Antara has been attacked," read its last report before it went up in flames and its staff joined the evacuation to East Nusa Tenggara.

At least now, says Virgilio, people are no longer hostile to the press. This is not only because of the need for information, "but because it's like there's a common enemy" -- those people in the humanitarian organizations and the authorities who are considered arrogant, he said.

There is also a common obsession -- soccer -- which is among the most important international news items.

The press is helping make sense of the daily need to come to grips with reality in a new life of extensive damage and unfulfilled expectations. The old enemy is gone -- Indonesian security forces in particular -- and now people are free, their own masters after having survived major trauma and losing family members -- or, at least, they feel they should be their own masters.

The world community, represented by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and Indonesian and foreign humanitarian agencies, now pose a new but familiar problem. Rightly or wrongly, locals feel the arrogance of those supposed to help them, an attitude earlier felt coming from Indonesians, and Virgilio adds that even those Timorese who have lived abroad for years resent the outsiders, or now have doubts about their own self-worth -- or both.

Recently a poem titled Mr. and Mrs. by Talit@kum chief editor Hugo Fernandes was distributed among the public, leading to phone calls to the office. "We're not that bad," an international staffer said, as quoted by Virgilio. The poem, dated Dec. 12, was the most widely read item in the April edition in which it appeared.

International organizations say they are doing their best to help Timor stand on its own feet after a two-year transition period. Residents, though, have an impression of a colonial-like hierarchy of whites at the top, international staff from Asian and African countries next and locals at the bottom.

Press idealists have an agenda other than striving for impartial reporting: helping to revive local cultures after attempts at "Indonesianisasi". They are in a strategic position to enhance efforts at making the local language of Tetum the common written language -- earlier efforts were started by a few media such as STT, which had a mixture of reports in Indonesian and Tetum.

Lalenok is printed in Tetum while Talit@kum is printed predominantly Indonesian. STT's Hugo Da Costa told the Post the language to be used in the media would pose a dilemma.

The young generation had been brought up speaking Bahasa Indonesia, the language of the occupiers; Tetum was used mostly in conversation among Timorese, and Portuguese was the language of the elite.

The result is that new words are cropping up. "Even editors get confused" given the absence of spelling standards, says Virgilio. An upcoming language congress this year aims to address this problem.

The desire to make Tetum the language of the media has been voiced by many readers, who offer suggestions to help out the confused editors.

An edition of Lalenok last month had the new taxes imposed by UNTAET as its main focus. "We were going to use the familiar Portuguese word impostu for taxes," Virgilio said. But then editors decided to take an elderly man's suggestion and use the old Tetum word, osan finta.

The report on the taxes included an interview with an elderly trader, Oscar Lima, who said he was having trouble selling things because he had to raise the price of his merchandise because of the taxes. Tetum business terms in the report were explained in brackets by the more familiar Indonesian terms.

Beneath the story was an interview with UNTAET chief Sergio de Mello explaining the tax policy. News now largely reaches locals through a press corps of almost 100 Timorese reporters, as most foreign reporters have left.

The second page of Lalenok has a small column of Tetum vocabulary, listing new words and words considered unfamiliar to the general public, including the younger generations from which most of those in the press come.

"I am proud yet sad to represent my new country," Virgilio told dozens of reporters from various countries on World Press Freedom Day on May 3, during a gathering held in Jakarta by the Southeast Asia Press Alliance.

"We do not know the uncertainties that we face," he said.

What is the mission of the press now that the Timorese have become independent, now that proindependence fighters are the new rulers and while hardships continue amid the need to bring families back together? Society is still fragile, say the Timorese reporters, with violence triggered by trivialities such as fighting over food.

But what the journalists and would-be journalists do know is that the urgent need for information must be met, to enable the public to monitor issues such as reconciliation efforts, the amount of aid coming into the territory and whether it reaches them -- and whether new officials keep their pledge to remain free of the corruption, collusion and nepotism "influenced by Indonesia's New Order".

So, ready or not, the young reporters are plunging into their new role as the press of a new nation with everything they have, known in Dili as a "journalism of ruins".

The writer is a journalist based in Jakarta.