East Timor and the media

Issue 

A Critical View of Western Journalism and Scholarship on East Timor
By Geoffrey Gunn (with Jefferson Lee)
Journal of Contemporary Asia Publishers, 1994. 271 pp., $25 (pb)
Available by postal order from PO Box 703, Leichhardt 2040
Reviewed by Arun Pradhan

The crime against the people of East Timor by the Indonesian regime is becoming known to the world thanks largely to the continuing resistance of the East Timorese. A largely untold crime is the complicity of Western governments in the Indonesian invasion, and the bias of the establishment media in justifying it.

In the wake of the APEC meeting and the Australian government's "economic push into Asia" overshadowing any semblance of human rights, this bias and complicity are as strong as ever. Thus A Critical View comes at an important time and is a damning rejection of those who support the ALP's "softly softly" approach to Suharto.

The book is a comprehensive and at times quite detailed record of East Timorese history and the constant sell-outs and betrayals that have surrounded the invasion.

Amongst the best sections is the chapter which describes the Australian and US role in the invasion. It refers to CIA papers which confirm that Indonesia was involved in clandestine warfare in East Timor from 1974. With this sort of information readily at hand, the US and Australian governments made conscious decisions to remain silent, and basically gave the Indonesian regime the go-ahead.

The book documents the role played by Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke in their support for the Suharto regime. Whitlam in particular is shown up, not only for his initial complicity, but for his continuing justifications. He even "proudly offered evidence to the UN Decolonisation Committee in support of his case as to why East Timor should be removed from the UN agenda".

East Timorese self-determination was on the ALP's platform as it ran for, and won, the 1983 federal elections. By early June of that year, it was clear that ALP platform and practice were two quite distinct things, as Prime Minister Hawke indicated "defence aid" to Indonesia would continue. Hawke's comment from Jakarta that "we should put East Timor behind us" formalised this betrayal.

The authors are just as detailed in their exposure of the media's role. Of course, after the Dili massacre and even more recently with the protests around APEC, the media could not ignore East Timor. Yet despite occasional exceptions, the media played down the massacre and emphasised the need for long-term trade relations to temper any "hasty reaction".

In their analysis of the media, the authors use a "Chomsky model" which was popularised in the documentary Manufacturing Consent. To me Chomsky's work is successful in three ways: its analysis, the vast amount of information it presents and its accessibility and clarity.

Certainly this book is dense with information; I find myself continually referring back to it and have not been disappointed by lack of detail. Analysis of the vested interests of Western governments is well backed up by this sea of information.

If the book has failings, it is in its presentation. Even from the title, one can see the tendency towards a convoluted academic style. Its structure and chronology could have been better planned and, combined with the style, might prevent some from getting through it. I would not recommend it to someone who is new to the subject.

The other main disappointment was its one-sided view of the media. Even in Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, he took the time to present the alternative press as an option. The authors make a single reference to Vanguard and a few to Tribune, but that is all.

This is unfortunate since the role and motives of the establishment media become even clearer when seen in the context of such alternatives, and certainly the role of Green Left Weekly has been widely recognised by the East Timorese community and solidarity activists alike.

However, these criticisms should not take anything away from a very useful book. In documenting a long list of betrayals, the authors have shed light on information which is usually distorted or ignored.

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