Knight Fellow Molds Journalism's Future Voices

Jun 272008

DILI, Timor Leste—Each morning at 10, the voices start. “Ah, aiy, eee, ohh, ooo,” they say, the chant punctuated by an occasional giggle. Over and over, the aspiring radio reporters struggle to perfect their vowels.

They’ve been at it for a month, and still they’re not quite where Maria-Gabriela Carrascalao Heard wants them to be.

Knight Fellow Carrascalao, who was born in Dili but has lived abroad for many years, is working in East Timor on a year’s leave from her job as acting program manager and executive producer for SBS Radio in Melbourne, Australia. SBS is comparable in some ways to National Public Radio in the US—except that it broadcasts in 68 languages, including some that are fairly out there, such as Amharic and Nepalese.

Carrascalao could handle half a dozen of those broadcasts herself, if she were so inclined: she speaks Portuguese, English, Spanish, Italian, “and a bit of French, because it’s another Romance language,” she says.

She grew up speaking Portuguese as well as Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor; she’s also fluent in Tokodede, one of the 23 other languages spoken here. That’s a lot of language for a country roughly the size of Massachusetts, with a population of just under 1 million. It may be because the island nation is mostly mountains, with many areas historically isolated from the outside world.

Carrascalao has come to Dili to provide radio and TV training to as many talented reporters as she can find. That hasn’t been a problem: Although she demands hard work from her students, there’s a waiting list for her classes.

Each morning, vocal warm-ups are followed by more detailed analyses of how the reporters sound while reading the news. First, they record an item. Then it’s dissected, syllable by syllable “We identify what we need to do to polish their voices,” she says.

The vocal exercises are just the starting point for rigorous training that includes reporting, writing and editing for half a dozen young reporters from Dili’s Radio Rakambia. Carrascalao says they are producing three to five news stories each day for broadcast. The best of these are collected each week and recorded on CDs, which are then distributed to often-isolated community radio stations around the country.

Until now, most such stations have broadcast only music for a few hours a day. So the Radio Rakambia stories comprise the first regular news broadcasts some communities have ever heard. Given the low literacy rate in many rural areas, radio is the only way for many Timorese to get news.

Three afternoons a week, six more-seasoned journalists from the newspapers Diario Nacional and Timor Post attend advanced radio training. “They’re a more complicated group to deal with, because they are already experienced reporters,” says Carrascalao. “All of them have talent as journalists, but I can’t say yet which will become good radio reporters.”

Carrascalao normally lives in Melbourne with her journalist husband and their two daughters. This is the second time she has put her career on hold to return to help her troubled homeland, which struggled first to throw off Indonesian occupation and then to achieve stability after becoming independent in 2002.

In the six years since the retreating Indonesian army destroyed buildings and the country’s electrical grid, much has been done to fix things. Much more remains to be done. Despite a massive United Nations presence, including UN police and an international security force of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, fighting breaks out periodically and an estimated 100,000 people—one-tenth of the population—still live in refugee camps.

Carrascalao recalls an idyllic childhood in East Timor as one of 11 children of a Portuguese father and Timorese mother. But her memories of a pretty, sleepy seaside city full of flowers contrast painfully with the Dili of today, where about 30,000 refugees live in tent settlements. Many buildings have been destroyed or damaged by fire and are either deserted or occupied by squatters. The threat of gang violence keeps most people off the streets at night.

“This is not my Dili,” she says, “not the Dili I knew.”

From 2001 until 2004, Carrascalao worked as head of television and radio for the United Nations Mission in Dili, where she produced material for use by the newly independent State TV and Radio service, as well as the UN itself.

Between 2002 and 2006, conditions in East Timor improved rapidly, but then fighting amongst security personnel killed more than 30 people and filled the refugee camps again. Watching from Melbourne, Carrascalao was heartsick. Political factions were battling in the government offices and little was getting done in the media sector. In fact, “many of the things we did were undone,” she says.

So she applied for a Knight International Journalism Fellowship. “Knight is so independent, you can concentrate on doing the best journalism without worrying about pleasing or annoying somebody,” she says.

Carrascalao has refitted an office at the ICFJ headquarters in Dili to serve as a recording studio. Future plans include using a Knight International Journalism Fellowship grant to purchase TV equipment so she can extend her trainings to aspiring TV reporters.

“Now I’m molding people to be professionals,” she says. “It’s a challenge to help them become independent journalists, but I know I can do it. Because that’s what I am.”