Media Inaction in East Timor
Numerous articles have recently been written pertaining to the crucial situation in East Timor. Major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times have reported that after 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, the people of East Timor were finally allowed to decide whether or not they wanted independence from Indonesia. A great deal of coverage was given to the retaliatory actions of the pro-Indonesian militias who wouldn’t accept a decision of independence. Even today, nearly two months after the vote, I can read about the peacekeeping mission in East Timor at the New York Times web site.
While I do appreciate the amount of attention this crisis is getting in the major media, a few questions still bother me. If Indonesia has been massacring the people of East Timor for 24 years, why is it only now that the American public is hearing about it, and why is it only now that the massacre is coming to an end?
One possible answer is that the media simply didn’t find East Timor newsworthy. Too many other more important stories may have edged out East Timor for the past two decades. It’s entirely possible. But to believe that the situation in East Timor wasn’t worthy enough to go to press seems hard to digest. Of the 700,000 people living in East Timor, 250,000 were tortured and murdered, thousands remain “missing”, and thousands more have been displaced from their homes. The massacre in East Timor is a genocide whose proportions have not been witnessed since the Holocaust. I don’t believe that the past twenty years have been exciting enough to warrant the complete dismissal of East Timor in the media, do you?
A more plausible, yet more frightening, alternative explanation is that the media intentionally ignored the situation in East Timor, but what motives could the press possibly have for doing this? The answer, as I see it, is that the media didn’t want to highlight our government’s involvement in the massacre in East Timor. The military aid the United States has given Indonesia has never been concealed from the public, yet it has never been publicized to the extent that it should have been. If any other country had supplied Indonesia with the arsenal the United States had, rest assured that the response of the media would have been far different. Articles, editorials, and discussions of experts would have all been visible in the media. The media response would have been even more extensive if the United States had a vested interest in the victimized country. The fact is that the United States could benefit a great deal more if Indonesia had control over the natural resources of East Timor. And so it went.
When Indonesia invaded East Timor in the mid-70s, 90 percent of the weapons used were from the United States. Consequently, all media coverage of East Timor dropped to zero. When Indonesia was running out of weapons, President Carter stepped up to loan Indonesia the necessary supplies, and there was hardly a comment in the press. The massacre of the people of East Timor didn’t seem to matter to the American government, and so why should it matter to the American people?
If this is the case, why has the press been covering East Timor so much lately? How did the people of East Timor gain their independence in the face of such a campaign of terror? A major part of the reason is the indomitable spirit of the East Timorese people. Their unwillingness to fade away as a people and a culture allowed them to endure 24 years of torture, murder, and brutality. Another factor for the increase in press coverage is that the American people simply would not allow the press to be silent any longer. Organizations such as the International Federation for East Timor (IFET) and the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) are examples of the grassroots movements that have allowed people to become aware of the crisis in East Timor, and angry at the actions of our government. Whatever the reasons for the increase in press coverage, the fact remains that for twenty plus years, the major media in the United States did nothing to report the heinous atrocities in East Timor, and as a result hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly. Our “truth-seeking” press began reporting on East Timor only when public outcry demanded that they do so.
I would like to thank the United States press for finally covering a story that needed to be covered twenty years ago. Thank you for making sure that the story was brought to light at a time when our government would no longer be seen supplying Indonesia with the billions of dollars in weapons to wipe out an indigenous culture. I admire the lengths to which the press will go to prevent the American people from feeling awful about our government. Thank you for covering up a horrific story that might have otherwise been resolved years ago if caring people had just been made aware of the situation. I thank you, and the dead people of East Timor thank you.
Michael Borucke is a member of the Class of 2001.