Sydney Morning Herald
September 9, 2011
A filmmaker says an ABC program on East Timor
took the word of an unreliable witness, writes Wendy Frew.
A NEW documentary about East Timor has raised
questions about a Gold Walkley-winning ABC TV
program that led to the resignation of Mari Alkatiri as prime minister in 2006.
Breaking the News, directed by Nicholas Hansen,
examines the relationship between local and
foreign journalists in East Timor and examines
the Four Corners program ”Stoking the Fires”.
Hansen, who spent four years researching and
filming the documentary, says Four Corners
painted a potentially misleading picture of the
government’s alleged involvement in arming
civilian militia – an issue that remained clouded
in uncertainty. He told the Herald the
willingness of Four Cornersto accept the
testimony of unreliable characters and its
failure to investigate possible links between the
militia and the then president Xanana Gusmao put
its report ”on a very shaky trajectory”.
Four Corners investigated claims that in May
2006, when East Timor was apparently on the brink
of civil war, Alkatiri ordered his minister of
the interior, Rogerio Lobato, to arm a secret
civilian security team. The report produced what
it said was evidence Alkatiri at least knew his minister was arming civilians.
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It spoke to the leader of one militia, Commander
Railos, who said Alkatiri told him to
”eliminate” about 600 disgruntled soldiers
(known as petitioners), opposition leaders, some
military leaders and any Fretilin members who opposed Alkatiri.
Lobato was later found guilty of manslaughter and
sentenced to seven years’ jail. Alkatiri denied
the allegations and prosecutors said there was no
evidence to substantiate them.
Four Corners filmed a ”sting” that involved
Railos staging a mock gun battle against the
petitioners, then phoning Lobato to get his
approval to shoot them. No petitioners were at the scene.
Hansen’s documentary – which was first shown at
the Dungog Film Festival in May and will screen
in Sydney next month – quotes East Timor
journalists who say Four Corners did not tell the
full story. A Timor Post reporter, Rosa Garcia,
who worked with Four Corners, said she did not
know who asked Railos to stage the mock gun
battle and she didn’t think Four Cornersknew
either. She says when she brought the story about
the militia to the ABC she said Railos and his
men were sheltering at Gusmao’s house.
In Hansen’s documentary, Garcia says: ”We cannot
interview Xanana Gusmao. That is why the Four
Corners program is not complete, for me.”
The executive producer of Four Corners, Sue
Spencer, told theHeraldFour Corners stood by the
program. She denied it failed to pursue the link
with Gusmao, but said he had refused to be
interviewed. She said the program ”presented
evidence that Alkatiri was aware the illegal
handover of weapons to civilians had occurred and
had failed to act appropriately. Nowhere in the
[Hansen] documentary are these revelations disputed.”
She said the program made it clear Railos had no
proof Alkatiri wanted the petitioners eliminated
and there was no reason claims by his opponents
should not have been investigated. But Hansen
says knowing who was behind the stunt ”would
have unlocked important information about Railos’s accomplices”.
”To accept that this unreliable character
Railos, while ready to incriminate an interior
minister and prime minister, had not taken up
with other powerful backers, also closed an
avenue of inquiry and robbed this investigation of the balance it required.
”We note that Railos’s attempts to attribute his
lethal use of arms to instructions from Prime
Minister Mari Alkatiri did not result in a
conviction when later tested in court.”
After the Four Corners broadcast, and in light of
months of chaos in the capital, Dili, and
increasing pressure from Gusmao, Alkatiri
resigned. ”This left the way clear for Jose
Ramos-Horta to run for president and for Gusmao
to run for the prime ministership,” Hansen’s film says.
The editor of the Timor Post, Mouzinho Lopes,
says in the film Gusmao was a clever but
”dangerous” politician. ”It can be considered
a game of Xanana Gusmao because Railos is his man
… If you play [Gusmao] once he will play you twice.”
A UN investigation into the violence found Railos
led 31 fighters into ambushes of Timorese
soldiers and had been supplied uniforms and
weapons on Lobato’s order. It did not accept that
Alkatiri gave instructions to Railos to
”eliminate” his political opponents but said
there was ”a reasonable suspicion that the
former prime minister at least had knowledge
about the distribution of [police] weapons to civilians”.
Fretilin, the former ruling party, which lost
power in 2007, has claimed Railos was responsible
for continuing acts of violence while carrying a
travel authorisation letter signed by Gusmao.