Back to the drawing board for Timorese media, parliament

Timor Leste’s nation-building efforts continued in 2009, even as a legislative framework was being laid for its media industry.

As there has been a mismatch between what the Timorese media’s expectation and what the legislators and their foreign consultants have come up with, both parties agreed to go back to the drawing board. The result of their collaborative effort is expected to be seen this year, and remains the most crucial issue that must be monitored in 2010.

In 2009, government, media, and legislators in Timor Leste agreed to put the brakes on what would have been a disastrous set of media laws for the fledgling nation. Though well-intentioned, a parliamentary initiative to comply with the Constitutional requirements for putting in place a Timor Leste Media Law seemed rushed and harried last year, to the point that the process lacked consultation and failed to develop a sense of ownership among media stakeholders themselves. More troubling, the draft laws carried provisions that seemed out of sync with a Constitution that guaranteed press freedom, and incompatible with international standards for fostering a genuinely independent media sector.

In response to a critical analysis of the draft laws conducted by Article 19, and then to a regional mission led by SEAPA and coordinated with the government, the UNDP, and KOLKOS—an umbrella group of journalist and press organizations in Timor Leste—the country’s leaders and legislators agreed to renew efforts to consult media stakeholders, and to not rush the passage of the Media Laws.

Rosario Da Graca Maia director of Radio Timor Leste, said KOLKOS had conducted two consultative sessions with Parliamentarians who are drafting the bills since after the SEAPA visit in April 2009. He expressed optimism that these future laws would truly reflect—and address—the needs of his country’s fledgling media community.
In the latter part of 2009, however, the government came up with a media policy that was supposed to provide a stop-gap measure as the said media bills were again deliberated.

However, critics noted that this measure still contains the provisions that were deemed controversial in the earlier bills. These include a bigger supervisory role to be played by government, reliance on public subsidies, licensing of journalists and excessive restrictions on media content.

How the bills are to be reconsidered, re-drafted, and re-consulted, therefore, are critical to monitor in 2010.

It is encouraging that Timor Leste’s president, Jose Ramos-Horta, last year reiterated his support for free expression in his young country. Himself a former journalist, Ramos-Horta said there is no sense in rushing a media law if it would merely pose more threats than benefits to press freedom and the media sector.

Youngest and poorest
Timor Leste is the youngest—and the poorest—country in Southeast Asia. Having survived 20 years of military occupation by Indonesia, a civil war and turbulent post-independence political battles, the local economy is still struggling to take off.

The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth is slow, unemployment and poverty rates are high; 40% of the population live below the poverty line.

A mountainous terrain separates the country from the western part of the island (which is under Indonesia). Timor Leste relies on the export of coffee and sandalwood, along with funds from donor countries, for survival. Though there are potential offshore oil reserves that the government is trying to jointly develop with Australian support, their location lies in a disputed border with Indonesia.

In this environment, radio remains as the cheapest and most accessible form of media. With dozens of stations, most of which are under the state-owned Radio Nacional de Timor Leste (RTL)—which had been established in 2002—radio reaches an estimated 90% of the country’s population.  There is only one television station, run by the government. Its reach is more limited. Satellite television service is available but only business establishments and wealthy families can afford it.

The Internet still has not made much inroad in society due to infrastructure constraints and high costs. Though the Internet penetration rate has doubled—from 0.1% to 0.2% in a year’s time—it will continue to have limited impact on the lives of Timorese.

Chilling effect on free expression
As part of the government’s effort to organize the media, the Parliament’s Committee A set about to come up with five media-related bills: an over-all media law, a media council law, a community radio law, a journalists’ statute, and a right to information law.

By 2009, the bills were nearly completed, through the help of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

However, journalists and media advocacy groups in the small and young nation issued complaints early last year that they had been inadequately consulted in the drafting process. As a result, the said draft media laws have provisions that the Timorese media believe would have a chilling effect on the free expression situation of Timor Leste.

KOLKOS, A network of media organizations, in which SEAPA partner Timor Loresa’e Journalists Association (TLJA) is a member, added that where the media groups have been consulted, they have still felt isolated from the actual revision process, and perceived a weak reception to their suggestions.

Among other complaints, KOLKOS said there was a clear disconnect between the draft media law and the needs and realities of Timorese media. The bill was written in Portuguese, for starters, and apparently lifted provisions from media laws in other former Portuguese colonies. The language kept Timorese from fully comprehending what was being proposed, and therefore from meaningfully taking part in the law’s drafting, even as the provisions themselves seemed impractical for East Timor’s context. Worse yet, they seem incompatible with international standards for genuine press freedom and the fostering of independent media.

Among the controversial provisions of the drafts are proposals to effectively legislate duties and ethics, license journalists, establish a parliament-appointed and highly complex, bureaucratic media council, and to slap hefty fines on reporters violating vague provisions of any of the abovementioned proposals.

The SEAPA mission to Timor Leste in 2009—participated in by SEAPA, the Alliance of Independent Journalists from Indonesia (AJI), the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI-Indonesia), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Southeast Asia Media Legal Defense Network— said that among the controversial provisions of the bills are proposals to effectively legislate ethics, license journalists, establish a parliament-appointed media council, and to slap hefty fines on reporters violating vague provisions of any of the above-mentioned proposals.

Hefty fines
The proposed media council can fine journalists and media companies on unrealistic levels that could bring a serious chilling effect in what is, by any account, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Meanwhile, it is proposed that the members of a national media council (the same body that will have the authority to issue and revoke licenses to journalists) will be appointed by parliament. This goes against the principles of independence and self-regulation that are the hallmarks of genuine and effective media councils in democracies worldwide. (Adding insult, and absurdity, to the threat, the proposed media council would have been structured to derive its revenue from fines imposed on journalists; the conflict of interests is plain to see, and all the more dangerous, as the council will have a built-in interest to see journalists penalized.)

On top of all these concerns, the vague wording of the draft laws create an environment of uncertainty that will further lead to self-censorship among journalists. To be fair, the laws also carry provisions to encourage public access to information and general transparency in government, but the climate that will hang over the country’s journalists will be so stifling as to negate any of the positive, even sincere, aims behind the proposed laws.

Virgilio Guterres, president of the Timor Lorosae Journalists Association (TLJA) said licensing journalists would limit their freedom. It would make the practice of their craft dependent on annual government renewal of such license, and also render even licensed journalists more easily vulnerable to bureaucratic and legal harassment.

As noted by the SEAPA mission, meanwhile, fines on individual journalists for an array of listed editorial or reportorial violations range from US$500 to 2,500. This in a country where most journalists earn less than US$100 a month. Newspapers must consider potential sanctions of up to US$10,000, even as theirs is one of most hard-up industries in the country.
Print runs are generally low, tied down by low literacy and a generally weak economy. Hardly anyone can spare money for subscribing to newspapers. Almost all of the newspapers have to rely on government’s purchase of their copies for income. These newspaper issues are then distributed for free among the populace. Though it helps the print media survive, it can pose complications in government-media relations in the long run.

Legal battles can also be complicated due to the fact that being a new nation, Timor Leste still has yet to develop the legal capacity to handle media-related cases. There are hardly any lawyers trained to defend journalists nor are there judges with the sufficient background to handle such cases.

Such are the challenges that face this country’s media sector this year.