Nov 1 1993

East Timor: Media Turned Their Backs on Genocide

Imagine that a small country is invaded in 1975 by a powerful neighbor well over 100 times its size, a major recipient of U.S. military and economic aid. About one-third of the population- — over 200,000 — people die as a result of the invasion, politically created starvation, and the ongoing occupation. Despite the atrocities and numerous U.N. resolutions condemning the invasion and occupation, the U.S., Japan and a number of Western European countries continue to provide the invader with about $5 billion in annual economic assistance.

There’s no need to imagine such a situation. The aggressor is resource-rich Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and a major center of multinational corporate activity: The victim is East Timor, a former Portuguese colony 400 miles north of Australia.

But most Americans have never even heard of East Timor. Given the geopolitical and economic importance of Indonesia, characterized by Nixon as the “greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area,” the U.S. has been more than willing not only to ignore but in fact to facilitate Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. Following Washington’s lead, reporting by the U.S. establishment media has been paltry at best.

Ignoring Invasion

In the months preceding the Indonesian invasion, there were a number of reports in the U.S. press on Portuguese Timor. At that time, the territory was in the throes of decolonization, and many Western elites feared leftist influence within the independence movement. However, as Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman pointed out in The Political Economy of Human Rights, reporting on East Timor by the corporation owned media in the U.S. actually decreased significantly in the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion.

The Los Angeles Times is a case in point. From August 1975 until the December 7, 1975 invasion, the paper ran 16 articles dealing with East Timor (This and other figures are from a search of newspaper indexes.) Since that time, there have been a grand total of 20 news reports on East Timor and three op-ed pieces. From March 1976 until November 1979, during which time an Australian parliamentary report described the situation in East Timor as “indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history,” there was not a single mention of East Timor in the L.A. Times.

The Chicago Tribune, one of the most neglectful major papers on this issue, ran more stories in the five months preceding the invasion than in the nearly 18 years following. It last published a story on East Timor on July 12, 1984.

Unlike the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the editorial response to the Indonesian annexation of East Timor was one of virtual silence. A typical paper, the Washington Post, issued no editorial condemnation of Indonesia in the month following the invasion; by contrast, the Post ran 19 editorials on Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in the month following that invasion.

In almost 18 years of occupation, the L.A. Times has had only one editorial on East Timor (7/12/84). The brief editorial voiced Support for Secretary of State George Schultz’s expression of concern to Indonesian President Suharto about human rights violations in (but not the occupation of) East Timor. There was no mention of the large amounts of military and economic assistance the Reagan administration was supplying to Indonesia’s military government.

Accepting Annexation

In the last couple of years, media coverage of East Timor has grown in some news outlets. This is largely due to the November 12, 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili, the capital of East Timor. In the presence of Western journalists, the Indonesian army fired upon a peaceful crowd gathered at a cemetery for the memorial service of a young pro-independence activist slain by the military two weeks earlier. Over 200 people died as a result.

The video footage of the massacre, as well as eyewitness accounts and grassroots pressure, forced Western governments to pay attention. Although certainly comparable to Tiananmen Square in terms of brutality, the Santa Cruz Massacre was barely covered in the U.S. mass media. Of the three major television networks, only CBS covered it even once (11/21/91). It was not until 10 months later (9/21/92) that ABC News ran a story on East Timor (an excellent one by Charles Glass).

The increased reporting has largely appeared in major East Coast newspapers. Despite many positive aspects, the reporting often implicitly accepts the claim that East Timor is part of Indonesia, treating the East Timorese resistance as a separatist movement rather than one trying to expel a foreign invader.

Three recent reports from East Timor (Philip Shenon, New York Times, 4/21/93 and 4/24/93, and Colin Nickerson, Boston Globe, 6/29/93) are indicative of this problem. In all three, the dateline is given as “Dili, Indonesia.” Shenon even refers to Dill as the “provincial capital.” It is difficult to imagine either paper referring to “Kuwait City, Iraq” or to Kuwait as an Iraqi “province” during Iraq’s occupation.

Both writers describe the war between Indonesia and the East Timorese as “civil” and the guerrillas as “separatist.” They also inaccurately attribute part of the conflict to religious differences between Muslim-dominated Indonesia and Catholic East Timor, reinforcing Western stereotypes of Muslim aggressors.

The U.S. Role

There has also been an increase in editorial interest-again, largely in the East. The Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post have dedicated a number of strong editorials calling for Jakarta’s withdrawal from East Timor and an internationally supervised plebiscite. One Washington Post editorial (12/5/92) even referred to Indonesia as “a leading Asian colonialist.” However, the recent editorials on East Timor often share a fault of the three articles cited: The U.S. role in the Indonesian occupation of East Timor is usually invisible.

The day before the invasion, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, visiting President Suharto. There is little doubt that the U.S. gave Suharto the green light to invade, with Kissinger telling reporters in Jakarta that “the United States understands Indonesia’s position on the question” of East Timor (L.A. Times, 12/7/75).

Since that time, the U.S. has provided Indonesia with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military assistance, greatly facilitating the colonization of East Timor. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. has helped to block any effective action on the issue. Former U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan openly bragged, in his book A Dangerous Place, about how he carried out with “no inconsiderable success” U.S. policy to render the U.N. “utterly ineffective” on East Timor.

Despite Washington’s ugly history in East Timor, the prospects for a diplomatic solution in East Timor are greater now than at any time in recent memory. Unfortunately, the general media silence on East Timor has left the U.S. public in the dark, helping to facilitate one of the great genocides of the late 20th century. Exposure of the tragedy of East Timor–and of the U.S. government role–is essential to the future of the East Timorese people.