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The Times and East Timor


Edward Herman

Seth

Mydans’s October 31 piece on the Indonesian departure from East Timor, "A

Calamitous Era Plays Out Quietly For East Timorese," with its admission

that 200,000 had died in Indonesia’s 24 year failed pacification effort,

including its final "rampage of destruction," might impress some

people as an illustration of objective journalism. But they would be badly

misled. Even in this fond farewell, Times bias rears its ugly head. The original

Indonesian invasion of 1975 is rationalized as "occupying a vacuum left

when Portugal abandoned this land," instead of "took advantage of an

opportunity to commit violence against a newly independent people, knowing that

their Great Power allies would not intervene." Mydans also manages to find

an East Timorese who flatters the Indonesian occupation: "they tried to

make it into a showplace, and now they’ve trashed it…"

But

the key to reading Mydans and the Times (and most of the rest of the mainstream

media) is to focus on how they frame issues and on their strategic silences. The

Times had 29 articles and one editorial on East Timor and 17 article and one

editorial on Indonesia itself during the month of October. In these writings the

Times frames the issue, not around the extent and character of the terror, the

plight of the victims, or the identification of the responsible criminals and

how they may be brought to justice, but rather the fact that the East Timorese

have obtained their independence, that the Indonesians have quietly left, and

that Indonesia itself is in the midst of throwing off the incubus of

dictatorship.

Although

their principal reporter Mydans repeatedly acknowledged in these articles that

several hundred thousand East Timorese had been driven into West Timor by

militias and an Indonesian army that had demonstrated truly murderous

tendencies, not a single Times article reported on or raised any question about

what was happening to those people. Were they being starved or killed? What if

anything was being done to help them or to press the Indonesians to stop abusing

them? Not a word in the Times. This can be explained, I believe, by the fact

that, in contrast with the Kosovo Albanians, the East Timorese are unworthy

victims; that is, they are victims of the U. S. or one of its clients states,

and in such cases–we may mention also Lebanese victims of an Israeli iron fist,

or Iraqi children dying under the regime of sanctions–the paper shows no

investigative zeal in looking into the details of human suffering.

A

second feature of Times apologetics is the avoidance of discussion of Indonesian

responsibility, criminality, and possible reparations or war crimes trials. With

great skill the paper’s reporters do acknowledge that East Timor was

deliberately ravaged and people killed, although they display no interest in

determining just how many were killed. They frankly admit that the Indonesian

army was behind the militias and carried out many of the destructive actions

directly, although they came late to discovering and featuring such matters. But

in contrast with their treatment of misdeeds in enemy states, once again they

can’t locate responsibility at the top in a client state that their government

has supported and continues to support. It is "rogue" elements that

are responsible; head of the army Wiranto remains a "moderate" by this

rule of biased analysis and reporting.

Amusingly,

in late September the Times had an article on U.S. plans to bring Saddam Hussein

to trial for genocide (Sept. 24), and during October it reported on a U.S.

effort to unblock Khmer Rouge trials (Oct. 20), but there isn’t the slightest

hint in the 29 news article and single editorial that there is an issue of

criminality in the murderous Indonesian assault on East Timor. There is also no

suggestion that Indonesia should pay reparations for what was admittedly a

monstrous set of crimes of pure vengeance.

A

third feature of Times apologetics is of course the removal of the United States

from any stigma of responsibility for the East Timor disaster. There was not a

single word of news, analysis, or criticism of the U.S. failure to intervene

with the leaders of its client state to stop the militias in the pre-referendum

months, or to take any serious action even after the post-August 30 devastation

and slaughter were well under way. There is no contrasting of the violent

intervention in Yugoslavia and the hypocrisy of the pretended concern with

ethnic cleansing there and the failure to act in its own sphere of influence in

the face of a second burst of Indonesia terror in East Timor. There is no

suggestion that the United States has any debt to pay the East Timorese for its

collusion with Indonesia now and its responsibility for the invasion and 24 year

occupation and slaughter via its diplomatic, economic and arms support. These

matters are strictly off the agenda.

A

final feature of Times apologetics is in its handling of events in Indonesia

proper. There was an election in Indonesia in October, and just as the paper

allowed the "demonstration elections" in El Salvador in the 1980s to

distract attention from the reality of death squads in operation and the

continuity of army rule, so here the Times allows the coming into nominal rule

of civilians to deflect attention from the murderous Indonesian actions in East

Timor, the failure to bring anybody to justice for serious crimes there, as well

as the failure of the elections to substantially weaken the power base of the

army. So readers of the paper will get the impression that despite that sad

little deviation in East Timor, for which responsibility is kept vague,

Indonesia has turned the corner and is another "fledgling

democracy"–conveniently still under IMF and army surveillance and

management–with whom we can proudly align ourselves as we advance in the New

World Order.

 

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