FAIR/Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

September 1, 1999



The ongoing story of East Timor's referendum on independence has received a moderate amount of coverage in the mainstream media. But news outlets have frequently failed to put the Timor story in a full and accurate context.

For example, in reports from East Timor's capital, the Associated Press and some other news outlets continue to use the dateline "Dili, Indonesia," implying that Indonesia has a legitimate claim over East Timor. This formulation is comparable to a dateline of "Kuwait City, Iraq" in the months following Iraq's illegal annexation of Kuwait. The Washington Post (8/31/99) reported that Timorese were voting on "whether to remain a part of Indonesia."

More importantly, many stories fail to note two crucial facts about East Timor's nearly 25-year struggle against Indonesian occupation. First, the Indonesian occupation has been extraordinarily bloody, resulting in the deaths of more than 200,000 Timorese, out of a pre-invasion population of approximately 600,000. A recent AP story noted that an "estimated 2,000 Indonesian troops have died fighting separatist guerrillas since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975," but failed to note the massive numbers of Timorese who have perished.

Others seemed to confuse the deaths caused by the occupation with those caused by the resistance movement. ABC News' Charles Gibson said that "It's been an extraordinary violent independence movement there with hundreds of thousands of people killed" (Good Morning America, 8/31/99).

Secondly, news consumers are not informed that the U.S. backed Indonesia's invasion of East Timor. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in December 1975, just before the invasion was launched, where they were told of Suharto's plans to attack the island (Washington Post, 11/9/79).

The following month, a State Department official told a major Australian newspaper (The Australian, 1/22/76) that "in terms of the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia, we are more or less condoning the incursion into East TimorÓ The United States wants to keep its relations with Indonesia close and friendly. We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation--a nation we do a lot of business with."

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations wrote in his memoirs (A Dangerous Place) that "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook" to reverse the invasion. "This task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success," Moynihan reported.

Finally, according to the State Department, 90 percent of the weapons used in the invasion came from the United States. Two years later, as the atrocities in East Timor were reaching a peak, President Jimmy Carter authorized an addition $112 million in weapons sales to Indonesia.