Last week, ABC radio journalist Steve Holland resigned in anger following a Media Watch report that attacked his reporting over a contracting scandal involving alleged nepotism over East Timor rice contracts. He says that attempts to black ban the foreign media by the East Timor government fail to do justice to the fledgling democracy.
East Timor this week celebrates 10 years of independence, but it seems the country is struggling to grasp basic democratic principles.
The East Timor government recently ordered a media blackout on the ABC after the broadcaster ran a series of stories that a government spokesman dubbed “Ricegate”, to which I contributed.
“Ricegate” demonstrated that multimillion dollar government contracts had been awarded to companies linked to family members of East Timorese ministers.
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From the start, not many people wanted to talk about these government contracts, which were awarded to many companies as part of food security plans implemented in 2008 — amid fears of a looming rice crisis.
I was one of two reporters who covered “Ricegate” since the start of the investigation — and the wall of silence was encountered early.
Two of the businesswomen at the centre of “Ricegate” — one Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s daughter Zenilda, the other Minister Joao Goncalves’ wife Kathleen — went silent when the names of certain companies were mentioned.
More puzzling was the fact Minister of Economic Development Joao Goncalves could not recall the names of the many companies his wife owned or part-owned. Though, he did concede he knew one was awarded a government contract.
In many ways it’s understandable the businesswomen didn’t want to discuss their dealings and government connections.
And a minister’s reluctance to elaborate on his wife’s professional practices should come as no surprise.
But it is alarming when a democratically elected government openly declares a media blackout because it’s unsatisfied with the way an independent news organisation is reporting a particular story.
In my mind, this level of censorship defies fundamental democratic principles of openness and transparency.
An East Timor government spokeswoman this morning was unavailable for further comment on the media blackout.
It seems clear East Timor still has a lot to learn about democracy. And it should. It is a young, small country that, while trying to map its future, must overcome the many burdens that still linger.
East Timor is one of poorest countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the nation was forged on a battlefield and violence can soon erupt and reignite tensions of the past.
Prime Minister Gusmao fought for the freedom of his people when he led East Timor to independence 10 years ago.
In an unofficial translation issued in a press release by East Timor’s opposition, and carried by Australian media, Prime Minister Gusmao was quoted saying: “So I warn Australian journalists that they should not tamper with my government, during 24 years, they signed to steal East Timor’s oil, now they come with a lot of talk, continuing to say that we are a good-for-nothing people.
“No, you don’t play with me, sometimes we smile with one another, but don’t play with Xanana.”
Perhaps, on this anniversary, it’s time for East Timor’s government to look at itself, to remember all those lives that were lost in the country’s battle for freedom, and think about what that freedom really means.