Four Corners accused over story that hastened the fall of Alkatiri
09 Sep, 2011 12:00 AM
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 Corners to 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.
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 Corners knew 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 the HeraldFour 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