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American Journalism Review
Why Did Press Ignore East Timor Massacre?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 1992

Why Did Press Ignore East Timor Massacre?   

By Brigid Schulte
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post reporter.     


It was a scene that few reporters ever witness: the brutal murder of at least 150 peaceful marchers by an occupying army. Correspondents Allan Nairn of the New Yorker and Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio were among those who did November 12 in East Timor; Indonesian soldiers who spotted them administered beatings that left Nairn's skull fractured and Goodman bruised.

A British cameraman hid in a cemetery on the South Pacific island to videotape the soldiers' systematic efforts to find and execute survivors. He buried some of his video and later smuggled it out of the country.

Harrowing tales, but for what? Who's ever heard of East Timor? Much less that the soldiers used U.S.-supplied M-16s to kill civilians and beat Nairn and Goodman. Or that Indonesia in 1975 invaded East Timor with tacit approval from the White House. Or that in the ensuing 17 years, some 200,000 people, fully one-third of the island's population, have been massacred or starved or beaten to death.

Nairn and Goodman place the blame for the lack of awareness squarely on the shoulders of the American press, which they say lets Washington set its agenda. "The press is not out there making an issue of the stories that are inconvenient to Washington," Nairn charges. "President Bush shouldn't be able to make a story go away by not talking about it."

Many news organizations did report or publish opinions about the massacre, among them CBS, National Public Radio and several newspapers. But Mario Crespo of Portuguese Television the only reporter asking questions at State Department briefings, and the story never hit the front pages. Nor was there any follow-up. "If it were the State Department's intention to bring Indonesia to heel like Panama, then it would have been covered more extensively," says George Jamieson, a senior producer for the Canadian radio program, "As It Happens," which aired several stories.

Nairn and Goodman continue to push for more coverage and action to improve conditions in East Timor. Because of that, some say the reporters have become advocates. "The same people reporting the story and then making it a human rights issue is questionable," says NPR Managing Editor John Dinges.

Nairn responds that "as American citizens, we're obligated to let other Americans know what happened. In proportional terms, this was one of the largest massacres of the 20th century, and the U.S. government was directly involved."

Some editors say that tight news holes and a shift to domestic coverage force them to choose stories that interest the largest segment of their audience. Because East Timor is about as far away physically and politically from the United States as the moon, it doesn't always make the cut. Media critic Ben Bagdikian doesn't accept that explanation. "That's the standard excuse for not doing an important story," he says. "But how many people are really interested in the prime rate? Yet the papers are filled with it every time it changes."

"I can only put my eyes on so many places in the world," counters Jamieson. "How'd you like to be a Kurd? Or the guys in Azerbaijan who are killed regularly? I've never known how to handle it except incrementally and incrementally will never be enough for people that burn with a blue flame."

"Look, Timor is an interesting, sad, horrible story," adds Michael Mossettig, senior producer for

foreign affairs at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of interesting, sad, horrible stories all around the world. And unfortunately, a number of massacres around the world are done with wea- pons purchased from the United States."

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