Reporting East Timor


Your editorial of 27 September claims New Matilda publishes ‘facts’ about East Timor as you uncover them, but you provide no substantiation for the conspiracy theories that underpin your reporter’s ‘journalism’.

John Martinkus’s claims need to be put into perspective. After all, Xanana Gusmao was the leading figure in East Timor’s independence struggle. Martinkus’s book, A Dirty Little War opens with Gusmao’s preface, indicating he held Gusmao in high regard in 2001. Internationally, Gusmao is viewed as East Timor’s equivalent to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela embodying his people’s cause.



Yet Gusmao now stands accused of being behind the violence that led to the resignation of his country’s first Prime Minister. If this extraordinary claim were to prove to be correct, it would greatly diminish Gusmao’s place in history, notwithstanding his long years as guerilla commander, political prisoner and East Timor’s first President.

So, it is a very big call to accuse him in this way. The stakes are extremely high for John Martinkus. The facts on which he builds his interpretation need to be indisputable if his conclusion is to be widely accepted. His journalism needs to be of the highest quality.

So how does Martinkus’s journalism rate in light of these high stakes?

According to Martinkus’s letter to The Australian (27 September) he is a ‘journalist’ and I am not. Martinkus seems to assume that because he is a ‘journalist’ this somehow justifies unprofessional pursuit of conspiracy theories, or that anyone who is not a journalist cannot criticise his work.

As Ken Inglis records in volume two of Whose ABC?, I learned investigative reporting from the late Allan Ashbolt, one of the founders of 4 Corners and a master of forensic journalism. I was the founding Executive Producer of Radio National’s Background Briefing and my first major assignment was actually in East Timor in March 1975. My reports include the exposure of Nazi war criminals in Australia, including propagandist and senior Liberal, Lyenko Urbanchich.

Some of the major planks of good reporting Allan Ashbolt taught me included:

  • Do not rely on hearsay, unless it can be corroborated by substantial independent information.
  • Only rely on anonymous sources if other evidence is publicly available that strongly supports their claims.
  • Scrupulously examine source documents to ensure authenticity and that they support the use you plan to make of them.
  • Apply rigorous self-analysis to ensure that subjectivity does not intrude so that a story simply fits your preconceived position rather than being a valid conclusion based on evidence.

So how do these principles apply to Martinkus’s journalism on the recent events in East Timor?


Martinkus relies on hearsay without corroboration from other sources. For example, the Mesquita document is clearly not a first-hand account. Rather, it relies on another person (Joaquim), who reports an alleged conversation in a prison cell with the former police commander.

It is significant that Mesquita has not directly confirmed this hearsay account, which has been around for seven weeks, nor has any credible evidence emerged to substantiate its lurid claims against Gusmao. Even Joaquim’s identity apparently remains a mystery.

Yet there are aspects to the document that seriously undermine any claim to authenticity. For example, it is well known to Timorese that the President lives at Balibar, not Dare, as claimed in the document, although they are nearby each other.

Then there is the claim that two Australian Majors who allegedly visited Mesquita in prison ‘immediately returned to Dare’. How would Mesquita (or Joaquim) have known where they went afterwards? As they were both confined in prison they could not have known what the Australians did after they left. If they were told later by someone else that simply builds hearsay upon hearsay.

Anonymous Sources

Martinkus claimed last June to have ‘confirmed’ there had been repeated approaches to senior Army commanders (including Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak ) by opposition and Church leaders and two foreigners to launch coups against the Alkatiri Government.

The problem is that no sources were named to confirm the claim. Ruak has not come forward to corroborate it, nor have other Army commanders. Furthermore, none of those allegedly involved in these treasonous conspiracies was named by Martinkus, including the foreigners, whose nationalities even had to remain secret because of the information’s ‘sensitivity’.

So the story relies entirely on anonymous sources with no on-the-record corroboration. Given that the people who were approached to commit treason include the Army commander it might be expected that confirmation of these extraordinary charges might have emerged.

Yet when Martinkus’s subsequent report went to air on SBS TV’s Dateline on 30 August the story was no further advanced, except that Alkatiri claimed that the foreigners were either Australians or Americans. Strangely, he could not say which, but apparently the information’s ‘sensitivity’ was no longer relevant.

So two months after Martinkus first made the claim to have ‘confirmed’ this long-running conspiracy the identities of those making the claims of treason remain unknown, along with those who supposedly suborned treason.

Nor do we know what action the senior defence officers took in response. After all, Ruak is supposed to uphold the Timorese Constitution and had allegedly been asked to overthrow the Government. Surely he would have taken action against those involved, starting as early as April 2005 when the first approach was allegedly made.

The problem with anonymous sources is that such people often pursue their own agendas, sometimes personal, sometimes on behalf of their superiors. That is why journalists have to corroborate at least some part of what such sources tell them. They are only valuable if they have genuine credibility.

In Martinkus’s case, anonymity has not been used legitimately to protect sources, but as a means to get the facts to fit a preconceived conspiracy theory.

Scrutiny of Documentary Evidence

One of the journalist’s professional obligations is to report any facts contained in documents that might tend to support an alternative version of a story, even if the journalist favours a different account. The latter should be based on the balance of all the evidence, not on selective use of documentary material to support preconceived notions.

A case in point is Gusmao’s three handwritten notes to Major Reinado (documents available in full on New Matilda here). Martinkus elevates these brief notes (on ‘With Compliments’ slips) to the status of ‘letters’, thereby portraying them as ‘official’ correspondence.

However, any fair reading of the documents demonstrates there is a powerful case that they represent the President’s attempt to calm the situation by ensuring that various rebel forces (Reinado’s and Salsinha’s) obeyed his orders to retreat to the cantons agreed with the Australian forces.

Yet Martinkus made no effort to alert readers to this aspect of the notes, instead using only selective quotes to make his own preconceived case that they ‘proved’ that the President and Reinado were close during the crisis.

Martinkus is entitled to his conclusion (although I think it is wrong given the content of the notes as a whole), but I think it is unprofessional to withhold important aspects of the
material from his readers.


The hardest part of investigative reporting is separating one’s own beliefs from the facts and ensuring that the latter are not selectively used to serve the former.

I have confronted this over more than 30 years of covering East Timor. Although a passionate supporter of the people’s right to independence I concluded nearly 20 years ago that my previously uncritical support for Fretilin as the party of liberation and progress could not withstand the scrutiny of the facts.

That is not to say that there are not many reasons to be proud of Fretilin’s history and leading role in gaining East Timor’s freedom. But there are also many unsavoury aspects to Fretilin’s history that need to be confronted.

This does not justify the West’s (especially Australia’s) policy failure between 1974 and 1999, or excuse Indonesia’s mass crimes against humanity. I have analysed these issues in two articles in The Monthly.

However, there is now a substantial case to show that John Martinkus simply operates as a partisan barracker for one side in a very complex situation. From the moment he re-entered East Timor last June on assignment for The Monthly, he has pursued a preconceived agenda: to ‘prove’ that Westerners (Australians and Americans) were involved with malign East Timorese forces (the Opposition and the Church) in a conspiracy to overthrow the Alkatiri Government.

Now he alleges that Gusmao gave orders to start the shooting and was behind the recent violence.

Almost every device in the arsenal of a partisan reporter has been used to pursue this case:

  • Use of hearsay evidence without corroboration.
  • Reliance on anonymous sources without corroboration.
  • Selective use of documents to fit preconceived theories.
  • And an absence of critical self-analysis to ensure that subjective beliefs are not substituted for the evidence.

At the very least, this amounts to unprofessional and partisan journalism. At the worst, it is substantial evidence to support a charge of propaganda.

John Martinkus’s recent coverage of East Timor can be found here and here

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.