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Media Biased On East Timor Coverage

Jakarta Post, 29/1/00:


By Eloise Dortch

PERTH, West Australia (JP): How well did the Australian media cover the East Timor debacle in recent months?

Were they accurate, fair, balanced and objective?

To apply the Australian Journalists Association (AJA) recommended code of ethics to the coverage might sound like naive idealism. Journalists have to sell papers, and in times of crisis their job is especially difficult. Information can be hard to come by and what is more, journalists themselves are not inviolable to being influenced by the events around them.

On the other hand, when the stakes are so high -- international understanding and the civilian lives in the case of East Timor -- some self-analysis can hardly go astray.

The following examples of news reporting about East Timor served more to inflame emotions and strengthen stereotypes than inform the Australian public.

In May last year, when a major state newspaper reported the discovery of 11 bodies, it was implied the dead men were pro-independence supporters, as " ... a mass grave with the bodies of 11 men was uncovered in Ermera town, a center of recent attacks by pro-Indonesian militiamen on pro- separatists".

However, it turned out the dead were pro-Indonesian militiamen. The next edition of the paper corrected the mistake with an article headed "Mass-grave victims were militiamen", but prominence was given throughout the paper to pro-independence groups' denial of responsibility for the deaths.

This breaches the first point of the AJA code, which requires journalists to strive for accuracy, fairness and to avoid distorting emphasis.

It also leaves the paper open to accusations of personal belief undermining the accuracy of the reportage -- which we are warned against in point four of the code.

Point three requires journalists to attribute information to its source.

There was a tendency by some Australian reporters, particularly on TV or radio, to make sweeping, emotive statements about the inclinations of the East Timorese long before the ballot was ever held.

Although the reporters might argue the ballot later proved their statements true, the reports were still flawed. No information was given as to how the reporter knew that, for example, "the growing sentiment of the people (was) independence from East Timor" or that "the military controls the streets, but not the hearts and minds of the people" (ABC 7:30 report, May 10, 1999).

There were also inaccuracies: "there is no doubt now in East Timor that to be on the side of integration is to be on the side of organized force," (ABC 7:30 report, April 26, 1999) -- which ignores Fretilin's own Falantil guerrillas.

Point one of the code also requires journalists to give fair opportunity for reply. In April on ABC TV, pro-integration activist Basilio Araujo remarked that the Australian media only paid attention to pro-independence people when they were attacked, but never paid attention to pro-integrationists.

Araujo made this statement on a national prime-time current affairs program, which also gave considerable airtime to other prointegrationists, so we may take what he said with a pinch of salt.

However, his accusation of sensationalism and side-taking hits home. Studies have revealed Australian journalists used information from pro-independence groups and international organizations more often than they did from pro-integrationist or Indonesian government sources -- the opposite was true of the Indonesian media.

To give the reporters their due, it was probably often more difficult, not to say dangerous, for foreign media to approach pro-integrationist activists than it was for Indonesian journalists.

A final criticism of Australian coverage also relates to point one of the code: reporters should "disclose all relevant facts".

Last April documents leaked to the media revealed that Alexander Downer and John Howard were told by the Australian Ministry of Defence that the Indonesian Military was directly involved in killings in East Timor, and this was far more serious than the "rogue elements" frequently referred to by Downer.

This major news deserved prominent treatment -- which it received, in The Australian and on ABC radio. But it failed to appear in many mainstream news outlets, which instead seemed content to follow the government line, even to hypocrisy, with page-one headlines such as Help us fix Timor: Habibie (The West Australian, April 21, 1999).

Months later Australia sent troops into East Timor, but only after the Australian public demanded it on such a scale that John Howard had no political alternative.

We can thank the Australian media for providing the Australian public with the information to bring about this democratic event.

Howard now basks in the glow of a popular political decision, but while public awareness of East Timor was heightened through the media, deeper understanding was not.

It is not the media's job to further international relations, but it is its job to be responsible -- and this includes avoiding dangerous stereotyping.

In the words of the introduction to the AJA code of ethics in covering East Timor, the media should have done more to question, comment and remember to scrutinize power and inform citizens.

* The writer is an Australian journalist based in Perth.


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