Massacre figures add up to a pile of rhetoric
by Michael Duffy The Courier-Mail 13/11/1999
Cited to reveal the distortion of truth in media reports (November 1999)

THIS year we have seen claims involving wildly wrong death estimates used to rouse emotions and create public support for political and military action in Kosovo and East Timor.

It's worth having a look at this process, not necessarily to criticise the actions that resulted, but simply to remind ourselves of how activists use the media to manipulate our feelings.

Readers will recall that the foreign staff of the United Nations and the international media fled East Timor in early September in fear of their lives, although not one had been killed. It is these people who, once they reached other countries, have been foremost in exaggerating the number of deaths.

In September the term "genocide" was widely used to describe what was then happening in East Timor, and people were talking about thousands of deaths. Such claims often occurred alongside efforts to push the Government to intervene.

"Every hour of delay by Prime Minister John Howard and other responsible leaders on the Indonesian military's outrage in East Timor is now being measured in innocent lives,"

wrote one journalist in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 7. A week later Amnesty International announced:

"Every hour that the UN delays [in intervening] will result in more lives lost."

I can still recall the powerful effect such statements, suggesting a death rate of at least 336 people a week, had on me and others.

On September 19 The Age in Melbourne referred to

"the killing spree that, the UN estimates, has left 7000 people dead".

According to the head of the UN war crimes investigation team, John Bevan, the atrocities "at this stage look like they could amount to a systematic genocide".

On September 26 there were reports that Interpol was expected soon to issue arrest warrants against Indonesians on "charges relating to the planned extermination of 12,000 people".

These were the figures, and the rhetoric, driving public opinion around the time Australia decided to send troops to East Timor.

EAST TIMOR'S Bishop Carlos Belo this week claimed that up to 1000 people died in the Suai church massacre alone. Dreadful as this was, others put the figure much lower, at several dozen.

The East Timor Human Rights Commission says it has found evidence of 384 killings in Dill in the three weeks to October 22.

What was the reality? Interfet, which now controls the whole country, says it has found 108 corpses, although there may be more. East Timor for some weeks has been full of journalists actively seeking stories of death and atrocity, but they have found nothing to inflate the Interfet figure.

Without attempting to diminish the horror of what did occur in East Timor (including the rapes, the torture and the forced relocations), and without seeking to excuse the Indonesians or claim that no more deaths will be uncovered, it's possible to suggest that talk of genocide and 7000 deaths was exaggerated.

For what it's worth, a figure of about 100 is actually close to that given by General Wiranto, head of the Indonesian army, on September 20, when he said that just under 100 people had died,

"not the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands as reported by the foreign media".

Several of the media reports on East Timor compared it to Kosovo. On September 7 The Australian newspaper quoted an East Timorese activist describing what was happening in her country as a "Kosovo-like genocide". But a recent article in the London Spectator points out that figures in Kosovo were also heavily inflated by those trying to achieve and then justify NATO intervention. Both the US Defence Secretary and the British Foreign Office claimed the Yugoslavs had killed up to 100,000 in their "ethnic cleansing". The United Nations originally claimed that 44,000 had died in Kosovo.

According to The Spectator article:

"A whole string of sites where atrocities were allegedly committed have revealed no bodies at all."

For the past few months, 500 foreign criminologists have been scouring Kosovo for information about murders. The death toll so far is 670. Any murder is, of course, horrible. But there is an important difference between 100,000 and 670.