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Edward S. Herman - The Times and East Timor
ZNet Commentary, Nov 1999
THE TIMES'S BIASED FAREWELL TO EAST TIMOR
By Edward S. 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.