This post was originally published by La’o Hamutuk, the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis and is re-posted here with permission.
On Thursday, 5 December, about 20 students and activists peacefully protested across the street from the Australian embassy in Dili to urge Australia to respect Timor-Leste’s sovereignty and rights to its undersea oil and gas.
In their statement (original Tetum), they urged Australia to “stop stealing and occupying the Timor Sea, but show your good will as a large nation which follows democratic principles to accept a maritime boundary based on international legal principles.“
They were gradually joined by about 20-30 parents and children from the nearby community.
The non-violent and non-threatening demonstration was assisted by four Timor-Leste National Police (PNTL) officers who kept the protesters and the traffic separate.
After about an hour, the PNTL “Task Force” arrived and, without talking with anyone, immediately fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. This article from Diario Nacional describes the excessive force used by police without provocation.
Unfortunately, a Timorese stringer for Agence France-Press (AFP) falsely reported that “About 100 protesters in East Timor have thrown rocks at the Australian embassy,” a slander eagerly propagated by media in Australia and around the world.
As Mark Twain wrote long before the internet was conceived, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
On Friday morning we asked AFP to issue a retraction, telling them “We are disappointed that this news report criminalizes the nonviolent acts of Timorese people to ask for our sovereignty and dignity. And we are disappointed that the media in Australia and elsewhere so readily propagate a false report without a single confirmation, photo or byline.”
AFP took eleven hours and police confirmation that the protest was peaceful before they retracted the slander.
Their revised article is more accurate, but more than 24 hours after it was issued, Google found it on the internet only 17 times, while the original one still shows up more than 2,000 times.
On Friday afternoon, about 100 people joined a three-hour non-violent demonstration across from the Embassy, with full cooperation of the police.
Two representatives were invited into the Australian embassy to give their statement to Ambassador Miles Armitage, who told them he respects their right to demonstrate and will communicate their concerns to Canberra.
Although this demonstration was covered by Timor-Leste television and Tempo Semanal, it was largely ignored by the international media, perhaps because all parties behaved peacefully and responsibly.
Today marks the 38th anniversary of Indonesia’s invasion of Timor-Leste, beginning a quarter-century of illegal military occupation which killed more than 100,000 Timorese people.
The Indonesian military’s horrendous violence, abetted by Australia and the United States, was rarely covered by international media and most people around the world were oblivious to it until the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre.
Why are the world’s media so eager to report lies about violence committed by people from Timor-Leste, but so reluctant — in the past and still today — to report truthfully on those who commit violence against them?
La’o Hamutuk is a Timorese non-governmental organization (NGO) which has worked since 2000 to monitor and analyze the activities of international and government agencies in Timor-Leste, to make development responsive to the needs and desires of the people. La’o Hamutuk focusses on international institutions and systems, trying to protect food sovereignty and avoid the “resource curse” in petroleum-dependent Timor-Leste, as well as to enhance democratic governance and justice.