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Uncovering Untold Stories: Timor-Leste's First English News Service


Words by Philippa McDonald, journalist and former ABC News reporter.

Timor-Leste is just an hour and a half’s flight from Darwin, but it is one of the poorest countries in the world, with almost half of its children suffering malnutrition. It’s also an oil and gas rich country with geopolitical importance, where Australia, the United States, and China are investing in development and vying for influence.

This is a country I was told would “get under my skin” and I’m about to embark on my seventh visit since March this year. I’ve been proud to play a small part in setting up the first ever English-speaking TV news service, RTTL World News.

The newsroom, which is Timorese-led and telling Timorese stories to the world, was founded by a partnership between ABC International Development (ABC ID) and one of the youngest public broadcasters in the region.

After 30 years as a reporter for ABC News, both in Australia and overseas, I never thought I could find another job so exciting and with such purpose. Being in Timor-Leste has challenged me; you can’t help but be moved by the hardship and courage here, but everything I’ve learnt over my journalistic life has come in handy.

This opportunity has followed masterclasses I have co-facilitated with women throughout the Pacific and training in the Solomon Islands. Every day is new, and I am passionate about sharing any skills I have which may make a difference, whether it be preparing for a tough interview or researching an explainer about carbon capture and storage.

I have never worked in a newsroom where there’s been flooding and I have feared the ceiling may fall in, let alone tried to establish an English-speaking bulletin with no journalists, phones or laptops. But, thanks to this crucial partnership, resources have started to flow.

Bella Cortereal (Left)  Philippa McDonald (Middle)
Bella Cortereal (Left) Philippa McDonald (Centre)

The focus of this work is on media independence, as well as producing fair and unbiased journalism for audiences. The ABC ID team, including Fiona Churchman, Jo Elsom, Aaron Kearney, Mark Bowling, Michael Coggan, Salvador de Jesus, Fernanda Maria, Randi Dahnail, Caroline Winter and a host of other specialists, have been working alongside journalists, newsreaders, editors and camera people in intensive on-the-job training. Two Australian Volunteer International volunteers have also worked to teach English and text editing.

The President of the public broadcaster, RTTL is almost as famous as Ita at the ABC. Jose Belo was imprisoned and tortured for his role in making sure the world knew about the atrocities in Timor-Leste. Both Jose Belo and President Jose Ramos-Horta are big believers in the power of an English-speaking TV News service to Timor-Leste’s development and membership of ASEAN.

But this is a country where young people are often taught in Portuguese and Tetum and are more likely to speak Bahasa than English. Our team didn’t grow up with English and have worked tirelessly to learn.

We had less than three months to launch our first bulletin. I arrived in March this year and we launched on June 5 to indoor fireworks and the popping of corks. When I started, I had no journalists to work with and I waited for trust to build with my translator, Ana. The first journalists came from the sport department: one could speak English, the others were rather quiet, but hey, they were taking a risk, and we were a ‘start-up’.

During the May election campaign our news director, Bella Cortereal, was presenting a one-hour political talk show every night, as well as running the English-speaking newsroom, reporting and reading her first ever bulletin in English. We all cheered.

Sonia Madeira, Bella Cortereal and Philippa McDonald
Sonia Madeira, Bella Cortereal and Philippa McDonald

It was a similar juggling act for our video editor Sonia Madeira who turned her hand to reporting for our first bulletin.

Sonia explained: “Our freedom came after a long and deadly struggle. During Indonesia’s occupation almost a quarter of our people died. There are 1.35 million people living in Timor-Leste, with 40 per cent of our population under 14 years of age. Almost half our children suffer malnutrition. You may not know that half of all Timorese live on less than two dollars a day.”

Now there’s a whole new generation of journalists in Timor-Leste who want to put their young country on the map.

Our newsreader reporter/ cameraman Jerry Madeira at RTTL World News didn't get to go to school until age 11 because his father was killed in the struggle for Independence. “As a child I sold vegetables with my sister to afford schoolbooks and fees,” he told me.

Jerry and I were “on the road” as part of a story he wanted to pursue on child labour. On the banks of the Comoro River, on the edge of Dili, we were stopped in our tracks. A plume of smoke, heavy trucks rattling along a narrow track and two small children on a mound of rubbish with their father, scavenging for metal to sell. The girl was aged six, her brother 10. Their father told me he could not afford to send them to school. On the other side of the river, their mother chips rocks into fragments with her one-year-old on her knee. It takes all day to fill a bag to sell for $2 to the construction industry.

Back in the newsroom, my translator, Fernanda Maria, is dubbing the voice of the mother, Dominga, and she cries and places her hand on my arm. “This is the story of my family; I was lucky my eldest brother got a good job and he paid for us to go to school, otherwise we would have been working on my parents’ small farm, never having the chance to go to school.”

Health services are stretched and Timor-Leste has one of the highest rates in the world of rheumatic heart disease, a product of poor housing and a lack of access to doctors, medicine or screening.

(Image Supplied: Philippa McDonald)

Timorese women have an eighty per cent chance of dying of breast cancer compared to ten per cent chance in the developed world. There is no national cervical cancer screening programme and school-based cervical cancer vaccinations have not yet been introduced in Timor-Leste.

But there is momentum for change in so many aspects of society here, which RTTL World News is documenting.

Environmental, human rights and LGBTQI +activist and freedom fighter, Bella Galhos could be the first woman president of Timor-Leste.

The BBC has just named her as one of the world’s most influential women. In an interview with our English-speaking news, she says she’s highly likely to run in 2027 with the backing of the current President Jose Ramos-Horta.

Bella Galhos
Bella Galhos (Image Supplied: Philippa McDonald)

Bella Galhos is not only a senior presidential adviser, she also runs feeding centres for malnourished children, breastfeeding mothers and vulnerable older women. In a country renowned for being conservative she is an out lesbian and agrees to be filmed by the team with her partner and child in the grounds of the presidential palace.

“My fight is to make sure everybody is counted. Everybody is inclusively counted in terms of their voice, their contribution. Give them the opportunity and resources to be the agent of change in this country. Whether they’re people with disabilities, or LGBTQI; rich or poor, women, children.”

That’s a story well worth telling.


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