domingo, fevereiro 01, 2009

Freedom (of speech) fighter

The Age
January 31, 2009

Jose Antonio Belo Photo: Pat Scala

A crusading journalist intent on exposing official corruption faces the prospect of being sent back to the prison where he was brutalised by his country's Indonesian occupiers, writes Tom Hyland.

JOSE Antonio Belo knows a lot about prison walls, inside and out. All up, he's spent about three years imprisoned behind them. One time he was thrown onto the back of a police truck and thrashed and stomped. The beating was so violent that a witness said the truck rocked wildly, like a washing machine.

He's been shackled, hung upside down, bashed, electrocuted and burnt. Tortured.

Belo won't say much about what happened to him in jail, except this: "If you enter these places, and you get a mirror and see your face, you're not going to recognise yourself. But I am lucky. I am alive."

These days Belo is a journalist, founder and director of an East Timorese newspaper known for hard-hitting investigative reporting, the kind of reporting that now risks sending him back to jail — to the same prison, in fact, where he was once tormented.

Belo's story, like that of his homeland, is one of tragic twists and triumphant turns. It's also one of curious ironies.

What's landed him in trouble is an article published by his paper, alleging ministerial corruption in granting government tenders. One of the tenders was to rebuild the walls of Belo's former prison. Another was to provide uniforms for prison guards.

In response, he has been hit with a government-initiated charge of criminal defamation, which could lead to a jail term of up to six years.

To compound the irony, he has been prosecuted under the laws of Indonesia, the former occupiers who once persecuted Belo and his compatriots. East Timor's own penal code — which will abolish the offence of criminal defamation — has yet to be enacted.

If Belo's story mirrors East Timor's recent past, it also highlights key issues confronted by its efforts to build a democracy from the ashes of occupation. It involves corruption, press freedom and a struggling judicial system.

Belo was three years old when Indonesia invaded East Timor, then a Portuguese colony, in December 1975. Like much of the population, his family fled to the hills. The early years of the occupation were the harshest — a time of famine, bombardment and military encirclement.

At the end of the 1970s his family was captured and returned to their home town, Baucau, where Belo went to school before attending university in Dili. There he was part of the clandestine resistance movement, giving political support to the pro-independence fighters still in the mountains.

In January 1995, aged 23, he was arrested when 30 students staged a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of independence leader — and now Prime Minister — Xanana Gusmao, and to remind delegates to UN-sponsored talks between Indonesia and Portugal that the East Timorese themselves deserved a say in their future.

The demonstration was met by 200 police and soldiers and it was here foreign witnesses saw Belo thrown into the back of a police truck. He spent the next 18 months in jail.

Released, but facing continued persecution, he went back to the mountains in August 1996, where he joined guerillas led by David Alex, a famed resistance fighter and a man Belo calls "my hero".

In their mountain camps they would talk of the future and what they would do when their country was free. Belo's dream, inspired by Alex, was to become a journalist.

"In the bush we discussed our struggle and our fight, and the struggle East Timor was going to face after independence," says Belo.

"David Alex said: 'The struggle for independence is very tough, but in some ways it's also easy. The struggle to serve the people is the hardest.' "

They talked of the role of journalists: how after 1975, when six Australian-based reporters were killed by the invading Indonesian army, East Timor's story was untold, "in the darkness"; and how in 1991, filmmaker Max Stahl's footage of the Dili massacre put the country's plight "back on the map".

Belo's main task in the resistance was to act as an interpreter for visiting foreign journalists, and to smuggle out documents, tapes and videos.

His nom de guerre in the resistance was a local word for sandalwood. Just as sandalwood was a precious export from Timor, so too was the news he sent to the outside world.

Belo and Alex also talked about the plight of Indonesians, then under the Suharto dictatorship, and how they suffered because of the corruption and greed of their leaders.

So in a guerilla camp, Belo resolved that after independence he would become a journalist, "a bridge between our leaders and the people".

Freedom, at this stage, was two trying years and a final vengeful cataclysm away.

In June 1997 Indonesian troops captured Belo, while Alex "disappeared" — killed. Belo spent another year in various military detention centres.

Released, he resumed his work with the resistance and the foreign media in the run-up to the 1999 UN-organised vote on independence.

When the vote went against Jakarta, the Indonesian armed forces and their local militias took revenge, laying waste to the country and murdering up to 1500 civilians.

Belo and a handful of foreign reporters refused to be evacuated and provided graphic footage of Dili burning — footage that helped compel Australia to send an intervention force.

From late 1999 until 2006 he worked as a correspondent and cameraman with Associated Press, the ABC, SBS and Channel Seven.

In 2006, with $500 of his own money, a $1000 donation and one computer, he founded his own weekly newspaper, Tempo Semanal. Now, with rising circulation and foreign support, including from staff at Fairfax Media, it employs 20 staff.

"We focus on investigative reporting," Belo says.

"We annoyed the (former) Fretilin government and now we annoy the (current coalition) Government, and other organisations, like the World Bank and foreign embassies," he says.

"They think we're troublemakers, and the Government says we're trying to bring them down. But no, that is not what we do."

A particular focus has been widespread corruption, which spreads from the lowest levels of bureaucracy to, it appears, ministerial offices.

It's a problem acknowledged by foreign agencies, including the World Bank and watchdogs such as Transparency International, which rate East Timor among the world's worst offenders.

The story that has landed Belo in his latest trouble was published on October 12 last year.

Tempo Semanal had a page one scoop, the result of months of investigation, interviews and a stunning leak of ministerial mobile phone text messages.

The story alleged Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts, relating to rebuilding the walls at Dili's Becora prison and supplying uniforms to prison guards.

The story cited leaked text messages on Lobato's ministerial phone, including exchanges with a company that ultimately won the $US1 million prison wall contract. Some of the exchanges took place before tenders were officially called.

Lobato, who has denied any wrongdoing, lodged a formal complain with the prosecutor-general.

She accused the paper of violating her privacy and breaching the journalists' code of ethics, and attacked Belo, saying he was trying to bring down the Government.

On December 12 Belo received a formal notification of charges, which would be prosecuted under Indonesia's Penal Code, parts of which are still in force while East Timor's own code, which would decriminalise defamation, has not been enacted.

Prosecutors have told Belo he faces charges under articles 310, 311, and 312 of the Indonesian code. The cumulative penalty is up to six years' jail and fines.

Two weeks ago he was questioned for three hours by prosecutors, who denied him access to relevant documents and asked him to name the source of the leak.

He is unclear when the charges will go to court.

"I'm quite pessimistic about this case, because the minister has a lot of power," Belo says. "We are like an ant trying to fight against an elephant."

Belo sees the prosecution as a test of Prime Minister Gusmao's stated commitment to stamp out corruption and uphold press freedom — two issues Gusmao mentioned in his 2007 inaugural speech.

Promising to act against corruption, Gusmao vowed to create "a culture of integrity, rigour, and professionalism in public administration".

On the role of the press, he declared: "An integral part of a democratic state is the right to be informed and it is in this sense that we assume the commitment to guarantee freedom of the press and the independence of the public media, before economic and political power."

Belo says it is also a test of the independence of prosecutors and the judiciary in ending a culture of official impunity for senior figures accused of wrongdoing, including instigating the politically motivated violence that racked the country in 2006.

"In my country a chicken thief can go to prison, but those who were responsible for the deaths of people, they are having holidays in Bali and flying off abroad," he says.

He says that if he has to go to jail "I'm ready for that", but he worries about the future of his paper and the type of journalism it will produce.

"Some of my friends are starting to ask if we can do this type of story in the future. Some say we could do soft stories, so we won't get into trouble. It will cost something."

He recalls his talks in the guerilla camp with David Alex, who defined corruption as when state money disappears and the people are made poor.

"This will affect journalists very much. How will they come out with strong stories?

"And the Government? It's a test case. Will they respect or implement the freedom of the media?

"That is their commitment and promise. Or is it only like a pop singer, singing a sweet song but not really meaning it?"

15 comentários:

Anónimo disse...

The Forgoten Heroooo...

My dearest fellowship...Jose Belo, you are the real hero of the nation..we were friend during the strugle for Independance and we were together in UNTIM Kaikoli...the same department and the same Faculty.
I know your strugle and what you have done to our beloved homeland Timor Leste. Many of UNTIM frontline students were victim in the past and still victim in Independence.People still remember the most fammous student organization in 1998 to 1999 Student Counsil (Dewan Solidaritas)they have contributed a great influence wih huge demostration around the country in other to prepare people to vote for independence...but until now all the leader of the country forget about it.

Dear fellow what happen today is diferent from what we have dream this nation will be in the past and during the strugle....some of the people that now in the government they were the one before colaborate with the indonesian to keep East Timor become part of NKRI 27 province or did not care with the word of Independence.

I really regret with scientic lecture by Deonisio Babo previously at Faspol garduation a week ago.....he was against the freedom of Jurnalism role as social cotrol in our society. What the government suppose to do is set up public information office in the government to clarify the wrong information not to close up jurnalism main role. I hope Mr Babo must clarify him self to the academic forum that he is Pure academic or belong to CNRT politician.

Mr. Belo you have done a right thimg in this country....that's true that the madia should reveal what's going on in the country bad thing or good thing.

Wish you all the best, may God bless you strugle.

Maubere Anan

Anónimo disse...

Mr maubere Anan,

We all share the plight of Mr Jose Belo and we have to fight for media Freedom.

On Dionisio Babo's speech, I think you MISREAD, or you do not understand his English. He was NOT against media freedom, he only said that:

"Readers must understand what the obejective of media is, so as to NOT MISINTERPRET what is in the media".

Please do not mis up things, Dionisio Babo is an academic par excelence that Timor Leste has, and he clearly distanced himself from politics when acting as academic.

Please UNDERSTAND FIRST what he wrote, before making an AKUSATION on him.

Hakuak Boot,

Anónimo disse...

Dear Maubere Foho.....

I understand and I have the tetum version of his speech it is not in analysis to what he point out is indirect to the Media which is reveal the corruption in AMP government.

I agree that we should select the information in the media but let media do their job because they play their important role as social control in society.

The government role is provide clarification to the publik with fair investigation to prove the information is correct or not.

I think the intelectuals do not need a polititian like Deonisio Babo with academic atribute to provide lecture in academic enviroment. The intelectuals know what is wrong and what is true in the news paper.

Maubere Anan

Anónimo disse...

My friend,

I think it would be different if you are the rector of UNTL. Unfortunately, it is Benjamin Corte-Real Araujo iwth different credentials. If he chooses Mr Babo to give the lecture at that special ocasion, shows just how Mr Babo's credential is "up stars" before the magnifico rector's eyes.

If you dont like Mr Babo, that is your problem, yet Im looking at the critical point of view/ teh way Mr Babo presented his viewpoin in a very academic, intelectual and professional way. It is applauded here in East Timor.

His main argument was to avoid misinterpreting the media. He did not incite to BAN nor does exerting any pressure on the media. I think you are just too emotional. Mr Babo is a very close person to Mr Jose Belo. you can ask Jose Belo yourself.

Mr Babo only reminded the newly graduated intellectuals of UNTL to be more selective when reading the news, and be the "balancing agent" to help mainatin social order. It is not a pressure. Please ...

Maybe you are not there yet to understand the highly qualified speech of Mr Babo, let alone distinguishing him between "academic" and "politician".

Sorry am not defending him, but simply state the truth. I really admire Mr babo's qualities. Please dont deningrate people just because you share different beliefs and political ideology with him.

Um abraco,

Anónimo disse...

"East Timor's own code, which would decriminalise defamation, has not been enacted."

Nem vai. Este crime de difamação, tão maltratado pelos falsos defensores dos jornalistas durante o Governo da Fretilin, continua de pedra e cal durante o mandato da "AMP", pois serve lindamente os seus interesses. Assim mantêm-se os jornalistas calados e aqueles que não quiserem calar a boca vão parar à prisão.

Xanana já havia avisado.

Para essa gente, o Código Penal indonésio serve que nem uma luva, tal como outras coisas indonésias.

Para Ramos Horta, o Código Penal indonésio não está certamente incluído no rol da tal legislação timorense copiada da legislação estrangeira. É que o CPI É MESMO estrangeiro.

Mas pelos vistos, não o incomoda aplicar um código estrangeiro em TL, quase 7 anos depois da independência. Só as leis "copiadas". O CPI não o incomoda, pois é genuinamente estrangeiro, não é cópia. E este é que deve respeitar as "tradições timorenses"...

Este artigo resume bem o estado de impunidade e arbitrariedade que se vive atualmente em TL.

Muito oportunamente, cita as promessas que Xanana fez em 2007, que agora não passam de meras palavras ocas.

Este comportamento hipócrita já é habitual - o de fazer discursos bonitos, às vezes regados com lágrimas. Mas sabemos que depois a prática segue sempre o caminho oposto àquele que essas palavras apontavam.

Qualquer semelhança entre TL e Portugal, onde curiosamente a imprensa está também comentando um eventual caso de corrupção envolvendo o PM, é pura coincidência...

O meu abraço de solidariedade para o José Belo

Anónimo disse...

O Sr, Alex Tilman usa diferentes nomes para denegrir as imagens das pessoas.

Não vejo nada uma unica palavra que demonstra o Sr. Deonisio Babo é contra os media.

O que ele apelou aos recem-graduados para serem mais critíco quando leiam os jornais.


Lelo Rai

Anónimo disse...

My friend Maubere Foho....I'm not hate,gelous or emosional with his speech. Deonisio also one of my friend...we were in the same position in academic however I'm pure academic I am not like him sitting in political struture.

The only thing that I have notice from his speech is he tends to choose this topic to express his political interest in academic enviroment that's my analysis.

I know that many people become victim of politian because they don't have deep knowledge about what is scientifi speech, what is academic forum and what is political maneuver by mean of scientific way.

My dear friend I know what behind Benjamin invite Deonisio to give speech in this academic forum.....

I know that Jose Belo is a friend of Deonisio...that's normal....everybody can be friend to each other even Xanana and Alkatiri they are friend but in politic is diferent... every one should defend his political interest.

Hakoak ba Alin Maubere Foho

Anónimo disse...

Maubere are really smart that I have ever meet.... your analytical view is more than a schoolar.

Anónimo disse...

My Friend ALex Tilman or Maubere Anan,

Thanks you for your viewpoint. As said, I know Mr babo personally, and I admire having him on political board of our country. I see him to be different from other friends from our generation in politifs.

He is low profile, calm and professional. He knows how to behave.

The fact that Mr Babo is a politician does not denigrate his capacity as an academic. In fact, academic and politician can suplement each other. Both make good qualities for a good leadership.

Please dont be too emotional, I would rather see his ideas, and not his political afiliation.

Um abraco,

Anónimo disse...

Maubere Foho you are mistaken,...actualy this is really Maubere Anan not Alex Tilman.

Anónimo disse...

Thank you my friend,

Whoever you are, we have been contributed a good deal to discussion in this net, in the last few days.

Thank you for your critical opinion.


Anónimo disse...


you are fantastic..... Now we know, Mr Alex Tilman uses lots of fakes names to DENIGRATE people. He is not as GOOD as one would think.

He also uses fake names to PROMOTE himself .. it is known among us here in Australia .. so keep it up and on..........

Ular Boot

Anónimo disse...

Thanks for all good readers....just to tell you all frangkly that it is not the place for DENIGRATE or PROMOTE ones self however this site or block is the only place that we can contribute our critical ideas regarding what's going on in our beloved country Timor Leste.

Dear friends and readers don't make assumption that we reveal information regarding someone figures is denigrate that figure but it is a warning mechanism to keep every one doing the right thing and benefit public interest.
These figures they are the leader and some of them will be a prospect leader they should know and understand that the country is a boat we all inside that boat if the boat goes wrong direction or sink we all will be sink or lost our way.

Again I'm not Alex Tilman, jut to tell you that my position right now some where in Europe to prepare my self looking for a better future of my beloved country Timor Leste.

Why and how I choose Maubere Anan?

If you read Maubere Anan it's me..Actualy I choose this name not because I'm belong to one of political party but my Great grandfathers name is Maubere so my name is Maubere Anan, that means the son of Maubere (Mambae Dialect).

All the best for the readers

Maubere Anan

Lao Lemo Rai

Anónimo disse...

Lets close the chapter of this debate.

Hakuak boot ba imi hotu,

maubere-Foho - Dili

Anónimo disse...

Alex Tilman não precisa de se promover. Timor-Leste tem sorte em contar com pessoas como ele entre os seus filhos.

Tomara muitos terem metade das suas qualidades. Uma delas é nunca ter insultado, ofendido ou difamado ninguém.


Todas as traduções de inglês para português (e também de francês para português) são feitas pela Margarida, que conhecemos recentemente, mas que desde sempre nos ajuda.

Obrigado pela solidariedade, Margarida!

Mensagem inicial - 16 de Maio de 2006

"Apesar de frágil, Timor-Leste é uma jovem democracia em que acreditamos. É o país que escolhemos para viver e trabalhar. Desde dia 28 de Abril muito se tem dito sobre a situação em Timor-Leste. Boatos, rumores, alertas, declarações de países estrangeiros, inocentes ou não, têm servido para transmitir um clima de conflito e insegurança que não corresponde ao que vivemos. Vamos tentar transmitir o que se passa aqui. Não o que ouvimos dizer... "

Malai Azul. Lives in East Timor/Dili, speaks Portuguese and English.
This is my blogchalk: Timor, Timor-Leste, East Timor, Dili, Portuguese, English, Malai Azul, politica, situação, Xanana, Ramos-Horta, Alkatiri, Conflito, Crise, ISF, GNR, UNPOL, UNMIT, ONU, UN.