East Timor: Journalist `was murdered to prevent truth being revealed'

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The Independent Online
IT IS still extremely rare for the foreign correspondents of Western news media to be gunned down in the course of their work abroad, although dozens of reporters die covering strife in their own countries each year. Algeria and Colombia are ranked as the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work.

But a new phenomenon appears to be emerging, in which foreign correspondents are deliberately attacked by groups determined to prevent aspects of the story being written about or broadcast to the world.

Sander Thoenes, the Jakarta correspondent of the Financial Times, who was murdered in Dili on Tuesday, may have been the first victim of a deliberate wave of atrocities against the foreign press by East Timor's red-beret- wearing, machete-wielding militias and their backers in the Indonesian military.

Mr Thoenes's fate mirrored that of the two journalists from the German weekly news magazine Stern who were killed in Kosovo in June. They are believed to have been murdered by Serb soldiers who offered to help them to investigate reports of mass graves.

Like them, Mr Thoenes may also have assumed that the arrival of foreign peace-keepers in the conflict zone was the green light to move freely around the territory, when in fact it was more perilous than ever to do so.

The International Federation of Journalists said the murder was a "blatant" attempt to prevent the truth being reported from East Timor.

Richard Murphy of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York said there were clear indications of a shift from harassing journalists and overseas observers to get them to leave the territory, to a policy of deliberately targeting them.

"The humiliation of the arrival of international peace-keeping forces in Dili seems to have triggered a different reaction," Mr Murphy said. "The animosity and anger is now being directed at anyone reporting what is going on."

Perhaps it was a tragic coincidence, but Mr Thoenes's last report for the Financial Times appeared on Tuesday under the headline "Military's power undimmed by humiliations". In it he wrote of how the Indonesian military would retain its grip on the country despite the disgrace of ceding East Timor to Australian and Asian troops.

Sander Thoenes was 30 and a rising star as far as the Financial Times was concerned. He also wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland.

"Sander was one of the Financial Times's finest foreign correspondents, and a wonderful friend and colleague," said Richard Lambert, editor of the newspaper. "He was full of enthusiasm and showed great initiative and flair in everything he did. He was devoted to getting to the truth. We are all devastated by this tragedy and extend our deepest sympathies to his partner and family."

Although Sander was a Dutch national, close colleagues said he wrote "beautiful English". He was said to be passionate about Indonesia, spoke Indonesian and had reported regularly from East Timor.

Born in Enschede in the Netherlands, he studied in the United States before moving to Russia where he joined the English language newspaper the Moscow Times. He joined the Financial Times in 1996, reporting from Kazakhstan in Central Asia before being appointed Jakarta correspondent.

This year so far 18 journalists have died doing their jobs. Of these, eight were Sierra Leoneans covering the civil war in their country, and two were Nigerians. A Canadian reporter for the Associated Press news service also died in Sierra Leone. Three Chinese journalists were among the victims of the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May.

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