President Jose Ramos Horta in Breaking the News Source: Supplied
FOR local journalists in East Timor, breaking the news could mean being broken themselves.
Then there's the difficulty of grasping the complex political narratives of this newly democratic nation.
"To the outsider, East Timor politics and society is labyrinthine," says Melbourne filmmaker Nicholas Hansen. "I wanted to find out if this view is shared by local journalists."
The physical, legal and financial precariousness of their position is the subject of Hansen's new documentary film, Breaking the News. Nearly five years in the making, the film had its world premiere in May at the Dungog Film Festival in the NSW Hunter Valley and is due to be screened next month in Sydney as part of the Antenna International Documentary Film Festival. And according to Hansen, whose previous film Rash won the Film Critics Circle of Australia award in 2005 for best documentary, it all came about by chance.
Hansen was struck by the level of international media interest. "I didn't set out to make a story about the media but it dawned on me that how the story was being covered was a story that needed telling," he says. "There were media in East Timor from around the world . . . All the former colonial occupiers were there, plus others, including Australians."Hansen was in East Timor during the military crisis of May 2006, researching another project, when he became fascinated by the dedication and courage of East Timorese journalists. They worked without the financial resources or protection enjoyed by their foreign colleagues yet were essential in gathering information on events in East Timor that were then relayed across the world.
The reliance on sometimes imperilled local knowledge very soon became apparent, says Hansen, who worked alone in East Timor. As did the different attitudes towards conflict between local and foreign reporters.
"I was in a car with some Portuguese journalists and we were looking for the source of some gunshots around Dili," he says. "Journalists run towards gunfire, so when sporadic shooting was heard, a whole bunch in cars and on motorbikes showed up. After that incident, we pulled in to a local newspaper [office] and one of the Portuguese journalists went to check what was happening, but the office was vacant. The local journalists had fled."
Breaking the News includes accounts of local journalists being beaten, threatened and sued for defamation. The film traces the often fraught daily working lives of two journalists, Jose Belo and Rosa Garcia, as they seek to uncover corruption and injustice while reporting on events such as the ethnic unrest that erupted in 2006, the resignation of prime minister Mari Alkatiri after allegations Alkatiri had ordered a hit squad to kill his opponents and the attempted assassinations of President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in February 2008.
The assassination plot allegedly was carried out by rebel soldiers led by Alfredo Reinado, who was shot dead during the ensuing gun battle. The film ends with the trial of the remaining rebels, who surrendered in April 2008 and were eventually pardoned in August last year by Ramos-Horta.
The camera follows the two main characters as they attend press briefings and editorial meetings, waiting to ask questions outside leaders' offices and sitting in on court proceedings. We see Belo, in particular, working on location with overseas colleagues, often acting in the role of interpreter.
As well as directing, Hansen wrote and produced the film. He operated the camera, assisted with the editing and even plays the xylophone on the soundtrack.
According to Hansen, East Timorese journalists operate under pressure from unseen forces who may be displeased by media scrutiny. They work in bare offices on newspapers put together literally by hand by volunteers, as the film shows in the opening sequence. "Breaking the News encourages the viewer to listen to Jose and Rosa as they reflect on what they need to know to render their story more complete. These gutsy, under-resourced local journalists are our primary source for news from East Timor."
The right to report without fear or favour in East Timor is hard won. Belo was imprisoned during the occupation for long periods and tortured by Indonesian authorities for his political activism. "Being an ex-Falintil resistance fighter, Jose, now a journalist and publisher, is such an idealistic and interesting character," Hansen says. "The character of the crusading journalist speaks volumes for the aspirations of the East Timorese people."
In addition to interviews with journalists, Breaking the News has interviews with Ramos-Horta, who recounts being shot, and Alkatiri. Gusmao was not available.
One scoop for Hansen was an interview with a soldier guarding the presidential residence. The interview happened soon before Ramos-Horta returned to Dili from Darwin where he was hospitalised after the assassination attempt. The soldier claims to have shot Reinado, a claim quickly denied by a relative of Ramos-Horta, who was also interviewed by Hansen at the presidential residence. According to Breaking the News, exactly who shot Ramos-Horta and the precise circumstances of Reinado's death remain unclear.
Breaking the News also airs doubts from Garcia about the accuracy of a report by the ABC TV current affairs program Four Corners detailing the existence of a hit squad that led to the resignation of Alkatiri as prime minister. Garcia was a contact for the Four Corners team after the paper she worked for was shut down during the 2006 civil unrest. She claims there were flaws in the way Four Corners went about constructing its report, despite advice she gave. In response, Four Corners denies receiving such advice from Garcia and stands by the program. According to Hansen's film, the truth behind this episode, like so much else that went on in East Timorese politics during filming, remains elusive even to experienced local journalists.
Breaking the News leaves the viewer with the impression that the intrigue of East Timorese politics runs so deep that local journalists do not always know what is happening and why. The two journalists at the centre of the film are quite candid about their inability to understand the events they try to cover. Their work continues despite an atmosphere of Kafka-esque obliqueness, even hostility, towards the role of a free press.
Hansen says: "For the East Timorese resistance to survive 25 years of foreign occupation it needed to work with invisible hands, leaving minimal trace. Are the opaque qualities of East Timorese society a remnant of this time?"
Breaking the News is at the Antenna International Documentary Film Festival, Sydney, on October 7.