Ten broadcasters, from all over East Timor, were recently in Australia for a five-week training program put together by the Australian Pacific Journalism Centre and funded by AusAid through its Australian Leadership Awards program.
When Joaquim de Fatima Coutinho first saw the equipment for the radio station he’d agreed to manage he was scared.
“I went to my mentor, the bishop of Maliana, and I said, ‘Hey boss, I can’t do this; it’s too hard,'” Joaquim says.
“He told me, ‘Just because you’ve finished your formal education, it doesn’t mean you stop learning. This is an opportunity to learn something else.'”
So Joaquim, whose interest had been in politics, decided to start with what he did know how to do.
He began talking to local leaders—the district administrator and people from the hospital, school and church —about what they’d like to hear on the radio, and invited them to a planning meeting, where he told them the new station belonged to the whole community.
Two years later Radio Maubisse has a listenership of nearly a third of the town’s population and enjoys broad community support.
“When I say they support us,” Joaquim says, laughing, “it doesn’t mean they support us with money.”
Joaquim is sitting in the garden of the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre (APJC) in North Carlton, where a group of East Timorese community radio broadcasters are eating lunch out of takeaway containers and soaking up some Melbourne Spring sunshine in a break between workshops.
The training, covering management, leadership, community engagement and radio production, consists of presentations from NGOs, media professionals and academics and workshops with the Community Media Training Organisation and Melbourne’s 3CR Community Radio. It includes visits to radio stations, meetings with East Timor friendship societies and even a trip to Sovereign Hill, the reconstructed 1850s gold rush town outside Ballarat.
President of East Timor’s community radio association, ARKTL, Prezado Ximenes, says the program has been a great opportunity for the broadcasters, some of whom have worked in community radio for 10 years, without ever receiving much training.
While the broader media landscape in East Timor is fairly healthy, with a national radio and television broadcaster, two commercial radio stations, one commercial TV station and a handful of newspapers operating, it’s East Timor’s 16 community radio stations that are the heavy lifters of the country’s media.
APJC director John Wallace, who came up with the idea for the program, says that in contrast to the Australian context, where community radio is a niche activity, in East Timor it’s often ‘the only game in town’.
“For reaching people in rural environments — up there in the mountains and in the valleys — you’re talking about community radio. In many districts it’s the only source of outside information, apart from human beings.”
It’s also the only media which is localised, and importantly, given not everybody in East Timor speaks Tetum or Portuguese, it broadcasts in local languages.
Despite its strength, the sector faces serious challenges — not least of them surviving financially.
“We wanted to learn more from community radio stations like 3CR in Melbourne about how to survive long-term,” says Prezado, who has been inspired by 3CR’s example of community participation.
Prezado is confident that the broadcasters who have come here will be able to pass what they’ve learnt on to their colleagues back home and that next time AKRTL can run its own general training program. But he’s hopeful the initiative here might be followed up with training in online media, which is still a new concept in East Timor.
As well as dealing with the big issues, individual stations have their own particular priorities.
For Radio Lorico-Lian, in Dili, which Prezado runs, the major challenge, he says, is engaging and supporting a growing population in establishing community and building peace.
For Joaquim and his team at Radio Maubisse the priority is training and equipment, and in the longer term finding a home for the station, which is currently running out of two rooms in somebody’s house.
Joaquim says he’s learning a lot on his first trip outside of Timor—from the cultural experience as well as the amazing amount of information presented in the training program.
One thing that’s surprised him has been seeing how normal it is here for people to kiss in public.
“I’ve learnt that when we come to a new place we have to respect what happens there,” he says, laughing.
For people with such serious jobs, the Timorese crew are a pretty lighthearted bunch.