Improving human rights reporting in Timor-Leste

Timorese young journalists. © UNESCO

The year 2012 is an important milestone in the transition of Timor-Leste towards democracy. The country has just gone through presidential elections, the new parliament will be elected in June, and the United Nations Integrated Mission, deployed in Timor-Leste after its independence, is coming to an end. As media are indispensable elements for the consolidation of democracy, UNESCO helps build capacities of Timorese journalists and equip them with skills necessary to report on human rights issues.

UNESCO, in collaboration with the Timor-Leste Media Development Centre (TLMDC) and the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), implemented the project under which Timorese media practitioners have been trained to report on the situation of human rights in the country.

Young volunteer of Los Palos community radio. © UNESCO

Timor-Leste lacks a consolidated and strong media network and a pool of experienced and qualified journalists. Journalism studies are rather new in the country. The university degree was established at the National University of Timor-Leste in 2008 and the first candidate will graduate this year.

The Department of Media and Communication lacks lecturers and equipment. The facilities are also very poor, there is no radio or television studio, five computers are shared between more than eighty students.

Besides, media workers’ salaries remain very low, in the best of the cases journalists can earn around 30 USD per month. That translates into a high rotation of professionals in the media impeding a real professionalization of the sector. Thus, the majority of journalists are very young and they lack appropriate training and necessary reporting skills.

Timorese media. © UNESCO

Media are indispensable elements for consolidation of democratic institutions. Media professionals play an important role in collecting, verifying, producing and distributing information to the general public. Therefore journalists must have an understanding of legal frameworks, both national and international, knowledge of human rights issues and international standards, and the ability to communicate these complex issues to the public in an informed and documented way.

In Timor-Leste awareness about the basic human rights remains low, as a result of laws and regulations being written in Portuguese, which most Timorese do not understand, only a limited number of laws being translated into Tetum. In addition, journalists have difficulties to access information kept by the official institutions. In this regard, the case of the Provedoria for Human Rights is remarkable. This independent organism has the mandate to investigate human rights violations in the country. But while the investigations are on-going, all the information related to them is kept secret, making journalists unable to access it.

The workshop in Dili, undertaken by UNESCO, TLMDC and UNMIT, came very timely, as the country is undergoing the important transformations towards democracy. It provided 56 participants with the knowledge to raise awareness about existing legal frameworks and human rights abuses.

Workshop in Dili - © UNESCO

The organizers of the training brought together subject matter experts from the Timorese Government, the United Nations and civil society: Ivo Valente, Vice-Minister of Justice; Rui Pereira from the Provedoria for Human Rights and Justice; Filomena Babo, Representative of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality; Jose Luis Oliveira, Timorese human rights activist, and senior journalist Hugo Fernandes. All these personalities, active in the protection and fulfilment of human rights in the country, briefed participants on the main issues that should be covered and reported.

According to Gil Da Silva Guterres, Director of the Centre of Investigative Journalism of Timor-Leste and a facilitator of the training, this project will hopefully encourage the Timorese journalists to further investigate important human rights abuses like the “impunity for crimes against humanity and human rights violations that occurred in Timor-Leste under Indonesian occupation and during the previous conflicts, such as the rise against the Indonesian government in 1999 and the violent acts that erupted across the country followed by the political crisis in 2006”.

Timorese journalists. © UNESCO

For this 29-year old Timorese journalist, the workshop took place at the “perfect timing”, as now media professionals have the knowledge to report on the “events and stories that may occur during the campaign period of the presidential and parliamentary elections”.

The UNESCO-TLMDC-UNMIT workshop also devoted specific sessions to basic reporting skills like newsgathering, principles of interviewing, storytelling and writing, and the application of these concepts to human rights reporting. These sessions were delivered by Allan Thompson, a career journalist and professor at the University of Carleton in Canada, who admitted to be “consistently struck by the dedication, enthusiasm and engagement of the participants” during the whole training.

Mr Thompson highlighted the great work that all participants did, especially during the day they worked in the field as reporters, gathering information on different human rights topics and putting in practice the knowledge acquired during the training. With their findings they produced serious journalistic works, either in the form of a radio documentary or a piece of writing.

Timorese newspaper. © UNESCO

In conclusion, the training workshop on human rights reporting undertaken in Dili was qualified as a successful experience by all the stakeholders involved in the project. A first and important step towards a better human rights reporting and better quality journalism in Timor-Leste.

As a follow up, UNESCO in collaboration with TLMDC and UNMIT, are developing a handbook on human rights reporting that aims to support the Timorese journalists in writing, developing and broadcasting human rights stories - another endeavour to support the Timorese society towards the fulfilment of human rights.

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