OK, so there’s a tradition dating back to the Spanish Civil War. Back to John Reed and the Ten Days that Shook the World. Heck, back to Cobbett and his rural rides and even before. The tradition of journalist activists.

They are reporters, but are they objective reporters? How can they be? The words “journalist activist” seem to be inherently contradictory. Sure, they can uncover hidden truths and bring unique insights to the events they are covering, but they can also end up – wittingly or otherwise – acting as propagandists?

Hence this week’s stoush over the reporting on Timor in Crikey from freelance journalist, socialist and union activist Peter Murphy.

“As for my account of the Australian military going to Lospalos on 9 June, it seems I was wrong about the date and right about the content,” Murphy wrote in Crikey yesterday. “The Bulletin is also wrong about the date. They say 13 June, and my checking with the District Administrator of Lospalos, Mr Olavio Monteiro, says it was 14 June.”

Crikey is told that there was a military presence on both the thirteenth and the following day.

There is a strongly held view among members of the Australian left – take this posting on the Left Writes site as an example – that Australia has been complicit in some kind of coup to replace prime minister Alkatiri with a more complaisant administration in East Timor.

Murphy writes: “I am from the left and a trade unionist but, on Timor, my views are the same as those of most Australians, who have always supported the right of the Timorese people for independence and democracy since 1974 – despite the policies of Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard.”

Well, yes. Australians have a strong sense of justice, even if they don’t always consider the full implications of these instincts. It’s why we intervened in Timor in 1999. It’s also why we are also opposed to Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua, even though it seems manifestly impossible for responsible government and a sustainable economy to exist in the country.

“Are you really saying that anything from a Fretilin supporter can’t be true?” No. But one side of the story is not the full story.

Alkatiri’s Fretilin administration misgoverned. It has collapsed. That might have disappointed its supporters and the Australian left. The East Timorese, however, have been left with more than their feelings hurt.

Peter Fray

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