A year after its proclamation of independence, East Timor is one of the Asian countries that most respects press freedom. But journalists are sometimes accused by authorities of being too outspoken.
Before leaving the country he led to independence, UN administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello said the people of East Timor needed their journalists in order to be informed, to hear different voices and to be sure that the government’s policies were conducted in a transparent fashion.
UN support for the reconstruction of the state and privately-owned press has clearly been a success. East Timor’s press legislation is one of the most liberal in Asia and attacks on journalists are extremely rare. The country has about 10 independent newspapers and magazines, as well as community radio stations and one TV station. The newspapers that have had most success are the dailies Timor Post and Lalenok, and the weeklies Talitakum, Lian Maubere and Tais Timor.
The authorities often reiterate their support for press freedom, while insisting on respect for professional ethics. Some public figures called the media to order in 2003. President "Xanana" Gusmão told journalists: "It is true that you have the freedom to criticise, but don’t abuse it."
There was tension between the government and journalists working for the state-owned media in August. Secretary of state Gregorio de Sousa wrote to Virgilio Guterres, the chairman of the board of governors of the state radio and TV broadcaster, on 4 August claiming that its staff lacked "responsibility, impartiality and independence." He accused them of turning the state broadcaster into "an instrument of propaganda against the government... with the aim of stirring up the population." He asked the governors to "analyse the practices of certain journalists and, if necessary, to take disciplinary measures or refer their cases to the state prosecutor." These warnings were prompted by the state media’s coverage of a conflict between opposition politician Mario Carrascalao and the ruling party. The chairman responded by accusing the government of violating press freedom and state media independence. The prime minister rejected these charges on 14 August, saying De Sousa’s letter just offered advice on how to improve the quality of programmes in the state media.
The families of TV journalists Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie inaugurated a memorial at the end of October in the house in the eastern town of Balibo where the five journalists resided before being killed by the Indonesian army in October 1975. At the time, the Indonesian authorities refused to let relatives enter Indonesia to attend their funerals. The circumstances of their death have still not been clarified. A new investigation was begun in 2001 by the East Timor prosecutor and the UN but it has not yet concluded. The Indonesian authorities refused to let the investigators interrogate former military and political officials who were in Timor at the time.