After 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation and three years of United Nations interim administration, East Timor became independent on 20 May 2002 and became a full member of the United Nations. The former guerrilla leader and independence hero, Xanana Gusmão, had been elected president on 16 April as expected and stressed right from the start that the press freedom that had came with UN rule would be respected.
The country has a dozen independent publications, a number of community radios and a TV station. Popular papers include the dailies Timor Post and Lalenok and the weeklies Talitakum, Lian Maubere and Tais Timor. But there are still problems, especially the choice of language. Some publications use all four of the country’s languages - Tetun, Indonesian, Portuguese and English.
Timorese journalists complained about the use of Portuguese in the media, especially those that got foreign funding. An example was the backing Portugal gave to a new fortnightly free paper in Portuguese launched in November called Correio de Timor. The language of the former colonisers is only spoken by a mostly elderly minority.
In February, the press freedom organisation Article 19 said the draft national constitution did not contain enough guarantees of freedom of expression. It recognised press freedom, confidentiality of sources and the independence of state-run media, Article 19 said, but it would still allow the government to curb the media by passing a new law.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Ximenes Belo, called on 23 May for the deportation of Antonio Sampaio, correspondent in Dili of the Portuguese news agency Lusa. In an article in the daily Timor Post, he said the journalist was "against the Timorese people and against the Catholics of Dili." Foreign minister José Ramos Horta replied that he would never seek deportation of a journalist. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said: "I can assure you the media will be free in this country. This is what we fought for - freedom of thought, expression and information.
Lusa had put out an article by Sampaio on 17 May headed "The strength of the Church or the power of the bishop" and describing the "conservative and insular" nature of the Catholic Church in East Timor.
The Timor Post reported on 4 July that Prime Minister Alkatiri had said newspapers "must allow the government to explain its views." The paper noted that finance minister Madalena Boavida had refused to speak to the media since she was appointed.
President Gusmão said on 13 August that if there was to be a trial for the 1999 murder of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, it should be held in East Timor "so the murderers can see for themselves that justice exists." He also alluded to the involvement of Timorese members of the Indonesian army in the killing. Formal indictments against two suspects, Indonesian army officers Maj. Jacob Sarosa and Lt. Camilo dos Santos, were sent on 6 November to a Dili court for arrest warrants to be issued.
Thoenes, who worked for the Financial Times, was killed in Dili on 21 September 1999, a few days after arriving in the country to report on the disorganised retreat of Indonesian troops. The two officers were also accused of 17 crimes against humanity committed by the army’s 745 Battalion during the 1999 troubles.