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Timor Leste: New Media For A New Country

New Media For A New Country

Carolyn Robinson describes her new, "home-grown", approach to journalism training in East Timor

DILI (KNIGHTline International/Pacific Media Watch): Whenever I get discouraged with the slow pace of media development in East Timor, I take a moment to reflect on the remarkable determination of the journalists with whom I work. Joanico do Amaral, Dominggos de Carvalho Pinto, Maxi Fraga and Vito Tael Ilari have been collaborating for the past year, focused intently on their goal of creating a local television operation in their hometown of Baucau, the country’s second biggest city.

They may be far less skilled than their counterparts from richer countries, but in many ways they are far more dedicated. They overcome limitations on a daily basis that would confound more sophisticated journalists: no income, no reliable phone access, no easily available transportation or dependable power supply. When I first started working with them, they had no television production experience or equipment either. The quartet shared only a goal of producing local television news broadcasts. Since then, their accomplishments producing three half-hour television news and current affairs programs constitute a small miracle.

Fortunately, their aims were also mine. As a Knight Fellow in East Timor, I wanted to train journalists to make television news in the districts outside the capital, Dili. The programs would supplement the one hour a day of local news and programming coming from the only television station in the country, TVTL. That station, however, broadcast only in Dili and surrounding areas. Most of East Timor was without any local TV news programs.

But how was I going to accomplish this with a team lacking cameras, editing equipment, a studio and television production skills? If there had been a more promising choice on the horizon, I would have taken it. No other group in the country, though, could claim to have even these basic credentials.

This lack of resources reflects the great dilemma facing the East Timorese. Independence may have freed them from the brutality of Indonesian occupation, but it left them with little ability to run their own affairs. Few Timorese ever held responsible positions in government, business or society, leaving almost no one qualified to run the new nation. A physical infrastructure is also lacking thanks to the destruction carried out by departing pro-Indonesian militias after the overwhelming vote for independence in a 1999 referendum. Whatever small physical assets the impoverished country once possessed vanished.

Media outlets remain in limited number. There are just two daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 1,000 copies. (This reflects the high rate of illiteracyabout 60 percent of the population of 800,000.) A national radio broadcaster can reach most districts if a lack of maintenance problems and sufficient fuel supplies allow. And local community radio stations are only now being set up with assistance from the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The amount of daily local news and information that circulates around the country remains small.

Take A Chance On Them

Given the desperate conditions, I decided to risk it with the team available. I would teach them television news program production with my own equipment a Sony handcam and a Macintosh G4 Powerbook with Final Cut Pro video editing software. With a few inexpensive accessories and extra RAM, this is a complete television production house, something that fits into a large handbag and costs less than $5000. To the surprise of many, sophisticated television production equipment is becoming almost as affordable as radio.

My objective bucked the trend set by international funders operating in East Timor. The donor organizations that have been propping up the country in its early years expressed skepticism about the future of domestic television broadcasting. They considered it too expensive to develop in a place where few people owned television sets. But after two years of working to develop the media in East Timor, first as country director for Internews and then as the news director and acting head of the local television station set up by the United Nations, I felt strongly that neither of these concerns was insurmountable.

My Knight Fellowship, therefore, was dedicated to proving that television production could be affordable and viable in East Timor. The many challenges I faced made the effort an undoubtedly huge gamble. Would my equipment be up to the task and survive rough handling by inexperienced reporters and producers? Would the unpaid news team stick with the plan long enough to create its own news broadcasts? Would the team members be able to produce something after a few months of training that viewers and donors would appreciate?

I started traveling once a week to Baucau with my local assistant, Levy Branco, to teach shooting techniques for television news stories. Soon we had half a dozen reports on tape. Several weeks were then dedicated to scripting stories into a format appropriate for television. And, following this, Branco, an experienced television producer from the Dili television station, taught the dedicated quartet the essentials of editing using my Macintosh laptop.

Once the short reports were completed, we created a television news studio in my house with a few halogen lights, a desk and a traditional weaving as a backdrop. The anchor received instruction in broadcast news presentation. After a little coaching, we taped his introductions and cut these together with the matching reports to make a complete newscast. Branco, by this time almost nine months pregnant, also provided instruction on making an opening graphic for the show.

And, voila! The first East Timorese local television news program produced outside the capital was finished. Branco gave birth to her second child the next day.

The local news program was a great success, but more was required. The team needed another project, one that would complement the newscast and impress the donor community while being easy to produce. I suggested a current affairs program in which questions about pressing local issues could be posed by Baucau officials and residents to the appropriate cabinet ministers.

The show, named "Husu ba Governu" ("Ask the Government"), became an instant hit with local citizens. It also helped fill a gap in East Timor’s fledgling democracy. The country offers few means for the average citizen to communicate his concerns to the government and few opportunities for ministers to respond directly to individual questions. "Husu ba Governu" now serves as an outlet for sorely needed interaction between civil society and its leaders.

As I was finishing my nine-month fellowship, three donors, in a sign my efforts had indeed paid off, stepped forward to offer support. Television Baucau now has equipment proposals pending with USAID, the World Bank and the Japanese embassy. Additionally, a major oil company developing a field off the coast of East Timor has expressed interest in sponsoring their programs, potentially providing the station with long-term cash flow.

It’s Just The Beginning

I have now received a second Knight Fellowship in East Timor to continue to help develop TV Baucau. The station still requires more assistance with almost everything it does. My efforts now focus on spending several months helping to obtain advanced training, more equipment, sponsors and advertisers, and expanding their distribution network around the country.

Whether these efforts will be sufficient to guarantee sustainability remains unknown. It is another gamble, but one that is necessary and with reasonable odds of success.

The Timorese journalists with whom I work, however, have an additional concern. They worry about repaying the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to date the only organization to offer them assistance, for its support. I put them at ease, ensuring them that their providing more local television news for East Timor is the best payback for all involved.


Carolyn Robinson has spent most of the last 20 years as a television news producer and reporter. She began her journalistic career with CNN at its headquarters in Atlanta, where she produced live news programs for Headline News before moving on to CNN’s Medical News unit, where she produced its weekly half-hour show and reported on a variety of health issues. Carolyn also freelanced as a producer and reporter for CNN at its bureaus in London, Washington and Hong Kong, as well as for several international print and radio media organizations such as Reuters, AP, NPR, The Christian Science Monitor and the Far Eastern Economic Review. She has spent most of the last decade working in Asia, first as senior producer at a Chinese television affiliate for CNN in Hong Kong, and then moving to East Timor in 2000 as country director for Internews. She then worked as the news director and acting head of the local television set up in Dili by the United Nations.

Since June 2002, Robinson has been training and developing television journalists in East Timor as a Knight Fellow, and she will continue working in East Timor on a second Knight Fellowship throughout 2003.



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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