The Role Of Journalists In The Freedom Struggle
Clinton Fernandes: The Role Of Journalists In The Freedom Struggle
Sander Thoenes Memorial Event, Frontline Club, London. Monday 26 October 2009
The struggle for justice is not a contest between Indonesians and non-Indonesians. Rather, it is a contest between those around the world who want to justice to prevail and those who want to see impunity prevail.
In 1975, Indonesia illegally invaded East Timor. This triggered an international armed conflict to which the 1949 Geneva Conventions applied. During the 24-year occupation, there were numerous reports of killings, famine, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The minimum conflict-related death toll was 102,800. A conservative estimate for the maximum conflict-related death toll is 204,000. Whichever figure is relied on, the fact remains that East Timor suffered perhaps the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust.
In these circumstances, why commemorate one man - Sander Thoenes? After all, journalists enjoy no greater protection from attack than other civilians. One answer to this question must be that journalists played a crucial role in the independence struggle. Another answer is that in East Timor itself, Sander Thoenes is remembered with respect. There is a memorial for him in Becora, in the east of Dili, and commemorations are held for him every 21st September - the anniversary of his murder. As Manuel da Silva, an East Timorese man, stated at the NSW coronial inquest into the murders of British, Australian and New Zealand journalists at Balibo: "The reason why I came to be a witness was that I believe that the journalists are martyrs for East Timor and I believe they are East Timorese as well."
Journalists played a crucial role in Indonesia's independence struggle too. Most Indonesians know about Jusuf Ronodipuro. When Japan, which had been occupying Indonesia, surrendered, the Foreign Service section of the radio station had been left unguarded. Jusuf Ronodipuro entered the recording booth of the foreign section, and with the help of the radio's technical officers, read the Indonesian proclamation of independence to the world in August 1945. Later, Jusuf and his friends managed to steal enough equipment to set up Suara Indonesia Merdeka (The Voice of Free Indonesia). Jusuf and his colleagues founded Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI). It had a famous slogan, 'Sekali di udara, tetap di udara' ('Once on the air, always on the air').
Raden Mas Tirto Adhisuryo was a pioneer of Indonesian journalism. He was the first indigenous Indonesian to publish a daily newspaper, using it to promote the struggle for independence.
Ernest Douwes Dekker published many articles advocating Indies nationalism and Indonesian independence. His activities were declared illegal, and he spent three months in prison. He was exiled from the Netherlands East Indies during World War II. After independence he returned to Indonesia and was appointed a member of the provisional parliament. He changed his name to 'Danudirja Setiabudi' which means 'powerful substance, faithful spirit'. A district and a main street in Jakarta are named Setiabudi in his honour.
Siti Latifah Herawati Diah, or Ibu Hera, as she is better known, was a stringer for the United Press International (UPI) newswire. She was a founding member of Merdeka newspaper and The Indonesian Observer.
Abdul Muis was an Indonesian writer and journalist who was famous for his stirring articles in favour of independence. Many Indonesian cities have streets named after him.
These Indonesian journalists were honourable, courageous people, and journalists reporting on East Timor during the Indonesian military occupation were following in their footsteps. In fact, Sander was not the last journalist to be killed by the Indonesian military. He was the last *foreign* journalist to be killed. The last journalist to be killed was in fact an Indonesian - Agus Muliawan, a 26 year old man who worked for the Tokyo-based Asia Press International. The leader of the unit that killed him had trained alongside Australian troops in the early 1990s.
In East Timor's independence struggle, Sander Thoenes and Agus Muliawan were at the tail end of a long and honourable tradition of journalists who covered the territory during the war. These include the Portuguese journalist Adelino Gomes, who obtained evidence in 1975 that Indonesia had massed troops in West Timor and crossed into Portuguese Timor.
British journalists Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters were murdered at Balibo, near the western border of East Timor, along with their Australian colleagues Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, and their New Zealand colleague Gary Cunningham. Later in 1975 the Indonesian military murdered another Australian journalist named Roger East.
The silence of the British, Australian and New Zealand governments after these murders sent a powerful signal to the Indonesian military - that they could treat the Timorese as they wished, and there would be no objection from the West. That was the real green light. After all, if the British government took no action over the deaths of British subjects, the Indonesian military could expect similar inaction over anything else it did to the East Timorese.
It was the work of journalists and members of civil society that contributed to the growing public awareness of East Timor. In September 1990 Robert Domm conducted a secret interview with the resistance leader Xanana Gusmao in East Timor. It was broadcast to the outside world, resulting in greater awareness of East Timor's independence struggle. English journalist Max Stahl captured vital footage of the Santa Cruz massacre, changing forever the world's perceptions of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. US journalists Alan Nairn and Amy Goodman, who narrowly survived the Santa Cruz massacre, campaigned for East Timor in the United States. Indonesian journalists such as Tossy Santoso and Yoss Wibisono broadcast stories and interviews whilst working for Radio Netherlands. John Pilger and David Munro entered occupied East Timor in 1993, resulting in Death of a Nation, a powerful film that contributed to the world's knowledge of the Indonesian occupation.
Some East Timorese members of the resistance have themselves become journalists in a free East Timor. They recognize the importance of journalism, and the care and protection that society should afford to members of this laudable profession.
During the campaign for independence, the East Timorese and their supporters were constantly told that the Indonesian occupation was "irreversible". That word - "irreversible" - was repeated with numbing regularity for almost 24 years. Yet - thanks to the important work of journalists and members of civil society - the irreversible was reversed. As East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation noted, 'in the face of extraordinary challenges including significant disunity, resource constraints, isolation and overwhelming odds', the campaign for independence 'focused on internationally agreed principles, eschewed ideology and violence, was open to the contribution of all East Timorese, and made maximum use of the international system, media and civil society networks'.
This is an important lesson in the campaign for justice - for an international tribunal. The campaign is important precisely because it is difficult. It will face resistance, but the process of overcoming resistance will educate people, shame perpetrators, contribute to Indonesia's democratic transition, and make new friendships among campaigners. Just like climbing a high mountain, those who are committed to justice don't expect to get to the top in one climb. They recognize the need to establish a base camp and then a series of more advanced camps before the final push.
I suggest that it is important to call things by their correct names. It's important to say the words "International Tribunal". There is an hierarchy of phrases:
Reconciliation (a term best avoided until perpetrators have been punished)
Honouring the Memory (an ambiguous phrase that is often used to get around meaningful justice)
Justice (a good term, although there is a better one)
International Tribunal (Correct!)
However, there are intermediate camps that must be established on the way to the top. Just as a historical novel gains a narrative focus by discussing history through the life of an individual, so also we need to focus on individuals in order to inform the public. For instance, those who are committed to justice here can take steps to ensure that Yakob Sarosa becomes the best-known Indonesian in the UK.
Yacob Sarosa, the commander of Battalion 745, was criminally responsible for the murder of Sander Thoenes. He was a Major at the time, and was later promoted from major to lieutenant colonel. Sarosa attended Indonesia's military academy and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1984. The military selected him for special training in the US, and he spent six months at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1990. He held the rank of major during the events of September 1999, but was later promoted. On 6 November 2002 Sarosa was indicted before the Dili Special Panel with crimes against humanity over the same events.
Lt Camilo dos Santos, a platoon commander within D Company, is also criminally responsible for the murder of Sander Thoenes. Dos Santos was indicted in Dili with Sarosa.
Neither Sarosa nor Dos Santos have paid for their crimes because they remain in Indonesia, which has refused to cooperate with the East Timorese legal process. The British government has so far done little that is discernible to ensure that the killers of its own citizens are brought to justice. It appears that the British government is doing little or nothing to give effect to Security Council Resolutions 1264 and 1272 (both from 1999), which demanded that those responsible for serious crimes be brought to justice.
Prosecutions would enable the Indonesian people to better respect the rule of law as part of Indonesia's democratic transition. They would send a message that no one is able ..... ? the law, thereby deepening Indonesia's own democratic culture. This is why numerous Indonesian civil society groups have opposed amnesties and called for prosecutions for what their military did in East Timor. They recognize that most of the important pro-democracy initiatives that occurred in Indonesia during the 1990s occurred precisely because of the aftermath of events in East Timor such as the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991. Self-described 'supporters' of Indonesia who call for amnesties may be more accurately described as supporters of Indonesia's moral and political decay.
Page 74 of the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee's Human Rights Annual Report 2008 states:
"We recommend that the Government works to strengthen international support for the ICC, and for the principle of bringing to justice those who commit war crimes or crimes against humanity."
For those who support justice for
East Timor, education and organization remain the
watchwords. There is no statute of limitations on crimes as
serious as those perpetrated against the East Timorese.
Under UK and international law, it is entirely possible for
the perpetrators of this crime to be brought to justice.
Whether the UK has the political will to do that remains the
34-year-old question. It was activists who shaped public
opinion and confronted official policy throughout the
Indonesian occupation of East Timor. In this case, as in the
past, public opinion will continue to influence political
will. How strong that opinion is, is up to
For those who support justice for East Timor, education and organization remain the watchwords. There is no statute of limitations on crimes as serious as those perpetrated against the East Timorese. Under UK and international law, it is entirely possible for the perpetrators of this crime to be brought to justice. Whether the UK has the political will to do that remains the 34-year-old question. It was activists who shaped public opinion and confronted official policy throughout the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. In this case, as in the past, public opinion will continue to influence political will. How strong that opinion is, is up to us.