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Timor Leste Press Essential In Building Identity

Timor Leste Press Essential In Building National Identity

By Janet Steele
Fulbright Lecturer, Dr. Soetomo Press Institute
Column: Di-Tetun-kan

JAKARTA: (MEAA/Pacific Media Watch): A visitor to Dili who picked up Suara Timor Timur during Indonesian times would have found a solid 12-page newspaper published in one language: Indonesian.

Like other Indonesian papers, STT was obliged to publish stories based on the statements of public officials. But STT usually managed to include other points of view as well, sometimes based on interviews with Dili's Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, reports from human rights activists, or comments from faculty at University of East Timor. It also published articles on sensitive topics such as poverty, joblessness, prostitution, and disease, stories that often resulted in phone calls or worse --from the military authorities.

After the fall of President Suharto, Suara Timor Timur became more outspoken. In September 1998, it published an interview with Falintil Commander Taur Matan Ruak that sold over 10,000 copies and broke all records for newspaper circulation in East Timor. In the months leading up to the referendum, the paper was independent enough to ignite the fury of pro-Indonesia militias, and in April 1999 its office was ransacked. Reopening a few weeks later, STT was more cautious and, according to some, more in line with the pro-Jakarta views of its editor-in-chief, Salvador J. Ximenes Soares. The last edition of STT was published on September 3, 1999.

The situation in Timor Leste is very different today. Dili now has three dailies: Diário Nacional, Timor Post, and Suara Timor Lorosae-the reincarnation of STT, which Salvador Soares brought back to publication in 2000 at the invitation of Xanana Gusmao. Although Suara Timor Lorosae is still a 12-page paper, it now contains four different languages: Portuguese, Tetun,
Indonesian, and English. Like the other papers, its circulation rarely tops 1,000.

Today many Timorese officials express disappointment with the quality and performance of the press, saying that it lacks professionalism. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said "Our main problem is that media are trying to cover issues that they don't understand. They don't even read the official documents. This is a completely open government…they can have whatever information theyy like. But they don't. They are always spreading rumors, and making news and information based on rumors."

Taur Matan Ruak, now the Commander of the Timor Leste Armed Forces, said "When I make an interview and the next day I read it in the newspaper, I sometimes ask, 'is it true, did I say that?'"

But are these problems really the sign of a lack of professionalism, or are they the result of a problem with language? Timor Leste now has two official languages: Portuguese and Tetun. The vast majority of Timorese journalists can't understand Portuguese. Although they speak Tetun day-to-day, they say that they prefer to write in Indonesian. Why? In addition to having been trained in the Indonesian language, they point out that there are no written rules of grammar for Tetun, and no consistent spelling. Moreover, there are different regional dialects. As Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said, when journalists write in Tetun, it is as if "each one is pronouncing it for himself."

Many of Timor Leste's public officials prefer to use Portuguese, especially those who left the country after 1975. Taur Matan Ruak, who spent 24 years in the jungle and speaks no Indonesian, said "My mother language is Tetun, but Portuguese is more rich. Tetun is okay, but sometimes where you say one word in Portuguese, in Tetun you need ten."

When the government issues a press release in Portuguese, journalists can't read it. At the Timor Post, there is only one journalist who can understand Portuguese. At Suara Timor Lorosae there are two, and at Diário Nacional there is not even one. Domingos Saldanha, the deputy publisher and editor-in-chief of STL, said that when the President makes an important speech in Portuguese, before it can be published it has to be "di-Tetun-kan."

Language, like culture, is essential to national identity. If you ask a person to change his language, you are asking him to change his identity. Journalists who once wrote stories that, in the words of STL managing editor Metha Guterres, helped to "give the Timorese people a sense of self-worth", are now being asked to write in languages that are at best awkward and at worst unfamiliar.

Everyone in Timor Leste agrees that independent media are essential to the development of the new nation. But exactly what forms will that media take? And in what language? Although no one in Timor Leste has intentionally marginalized Timorese journalists, this is exactly what has happened. It would be a tragedy if the journalists who helped to build a sense of Timorese national identity were shut out by the language policy of the very nation they helped create.



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