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East Timor’s media ‘blackout’ or just a lack of research?

Steve Holland wrote in Crikey yesterday complaining about a supposed ‘media blackout’ in East Timor. As with another issue, he is wrong about this. There is no media ‘blackout’, but rather a refusal by the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, to continue to feed into under-researched stories that have already been shown to be factually incorrect.

Refusing to comment on an incorrect premise does not, of course, equate to ‘censorship’, as Steve Holland claims.

As a matter of principle, all governments, including those of small and democratic neighbours, should be open and accountable.  For those who have been following East Timor for some time, this has generally been shown to be the case.

Steve Holland is, however, unhappy that the ABC’s ‘Media Watch’ program outed him for getting his facts wrong on corruption in East Timor. ‘Media Watch’ said that Steve Holland was wrong in his report that a company part owned by the daughter of the prime minister had been awarded a government contract

Like a number of other allegations about government corruption in East Timor, this originated with the opposition Fretilin party. Also like Fretilin’s previous allegations, when investigated, it was shown to lack substance. As ‘Media Watch’ noted, Gusmao’s daughter sold her minority share in the company before the contract was let.

This fact was made clear even before Steve Holland’s report, yet neither Steve Holland nor the ABC corrected their error when it was brought to their attention.

What Steve Holland does not acknowledge is that some months ago the current AMP government launched a very public anti-corruption campaign. It would be remarkable indeed if government ministers engaged in corruption while at the same time attacking corruption. 

This is not to say that corruption does not exist in East Timor – it does, if mostly at the district level , in the letting of local contracts. But Steve Holland has not pursued this somewhat less glamorous and perhaps less newsworthy story.

If the Australian opposition made a similar claim about government corruption – for example, the ‘utegate’ affair – one would expect it to be investigated.  However, as with ‘utegate’, claims need to be tested before they can be called fact or else, as with ‘utegate’, eggs and faces come into close proximity.

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