Pressure on the draft press law

by the Timor Leste Journalist Association (TLJA)

[This report is also available in Bahasa Indonesia]

The drafting process for Timor Leste’s Press Law began in 2005. However, the most of the content was focused on criminalizing defamation, so that the national, regional and even international journalist groups raised objections to the draft.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) sent a letter of protest to the then President of Timor Leste, Xanana Gusmão to cancel its passage. And, after considering a number of reasons from Timor Leste Journalists Association (TLJA) and IFJ, President Xanana Gusmão finally canceled its passage.

In 2008, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) re-funded the drafting of the law. However, because there still remained a number of articles concerning criminalization of some actions and defamation, the draft law faced renewed protests from journalist associations. SEAPA, Article 19 and IFJ criticized and lamented about the enactment of a number of articles in the draft. Because of the widespread criticism, the bill become a ‘zero draft’.

Two years later (2010), the government, through the Secretary of State for Social Communications Timor Leste again invited representatives from a number of national media associations and journalists in order to re-draft the Press Law of Timor Leste. A small team of five people, representing their respective associations, was formed and headed by an advisor of the Secretary of State for Social Communications that later became known as the ‘Team Five’. The work resulted in the development of a 26 article draft of the press law. Team Five presented the draft ina meeting of the Council of Ministers which reviewed for their work.

The Council of Ministers also added article 20 on penalties to journalists and media institutions with fines ranging from 25 to 25,000 USD. . Thus, there became 27 articles in the draft Press Law of Timor Leste

After a period of review by the Council of Ministers, the draft press law was subsequently submitted to the National Parliament through a commission that handles the constitutional affairs, in order to conduct public hearings on how improve and get public approval of the draft.

Articles added

Information obtained TLJA revealed that the draft Timor Lestehas received the approval of members of parliament through a special meeting of the Commission A. A number of chapters have also been added to the bill. And there were now 53 articles in the draft law. Parliament will also hold a plenary session to approve the final version of the press law, before it is submitted to the President of the Republic to complete its passage by the end of 2014.

The addition of new by the National Parliament, was entirely unbeknownst to members of the media in Timor Leste. Moreover, article 22, which regulates the composition of the Press Council was significantly changed. Parliament reduced the number of press council members to five, with the following composition: two persons from media associations, one person from the association of media owners and two public figures, who will be directly elected by the National Parliament. One of the public figures will chair of the press council.

Changes to section 22 is in stark contrast to the idea proposed by both Team Five members and journalist associations for a seven-member council comprised of 3 three journalists, two representatives of associations of media owners, and two members of the community. Furthermore, the chair will be democratically elected by members of council.

The composition and process of the press council proposed by the parliament will not guarantee its integrity as an independent body for performing its tasks.

Moreover, in article 7 paragraph 4 of the draft press law gives competence to the press council to provide professional certification to reporters, after undergoing six months of internship.

Journalist associations and NGOs rejected the version of the press council composition proposed by the National Parliament. Because the press council must be an independent body whose mission is to defend the right of freedom of the press and freedom of expression, it should be primarily composed of journalists and media institutions. Additionally, press council members directly elected by the parliament would be susceptible to political intervention politicians.

Journalist groups also found as inappropriate the very article 20 on the system of penalties to erring journalists and media institutions. The fines would mean that errors could be bought with relatively large amounts of money. In addition, journalist incomes and revenues of media institutions in Timor Leste are very small, and may be disproportionate for some.

Journalist associations and media institutions recommended to immediately remove the article 20 from the draft press law, as they considered it to be a major threat to press freedom and freedom of expression in a country that only has a population of one million people.

In accordance with the accepted procedures in the Code of Journalistic Ethics of Timor Leste, the right of reply in kind for a media errors would have been sufficient to respond to public concerns or those who felt wronged.

Members of the National Parliament reasoned that these fines aim to educate journalists to be more careful in writing news and to be more responsible for the content of the media. Journalists however counter that these fines may become a means of searching for media errors instead of educating erring journalists. In the end, many media institutions may face closure if slapped with higher fines than their revenues could allow.

Critics of the draft point out that article 13.8, which requires ”foreign social communication organs who will do reporting and correspondence in Timor-Leste must request authorization from the government” will complicate access and may restrict the work of foreign journalists . Supposedly, this bill gives freedom to foreign journalists for their coverage without getting permission from the government. However, requiring permission from government seems to run counter to the significant contribution of the foreign media for the independence struggle of the country from Indonesian occupation.

Article 6 of the draft persons who could become journalists as “Timorese citizens whose education and qualifications are recognized by the Press Council and engaged in journalistic activity, organ or media”

This article is clearly contrary to the modern concept of a journalist who is not restricted by education, race or nationality in order to report on news. This article can undoubtedly limit the foreigners who can carry out journalistic duties in Timor Leste or Timorese who do not have the academic qualifications required to do reporting. In reality, journalism is an open profession and all people have the right to be a journalist, regardless of educational attainment. This article should have read: “Journalists are citizens of Timor-Leste or Timor -Leste residents who perform regularly on assignment in any news media”.

Politics as a test for the media

In 2013, the ruling Consello Rekonstrusaun Nacional Timor Leste (CNRT, or Council for National Reconstruction of Timor Leste) led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão with its coalition partners and the opposition party Fretilin have achieved consensus and a shared concept of the development of Timor Leste for sustainability, security and political stability.

Political stability means that the older generation of leaders in various political parties prepares a new generation of leaders for Timor Leste’s future. Xanana announced his decision to resign from the premiership in September 2014 as part of this process to prepare the new generation to lead the government.

This scenario for Xanana Gusmão resign before his term expires in 2017 is his own option, but supported by former prime ministers Mari Alkatiri and Jose Ramos Horta in the coming period.

With the political consensus that exists today has given the Timor Leste media a tremendous challenge in performing their role as watchdogs over political power.

Not too long ago, Paulino Gama, a former guerilla commander using the name Mauk Moruk returned to the country  to call to immediately dissolve the parliament and government in order to pull the lives of Timorese out of poverty. The call received a strong reaction from all factions in the National Parliament, which issued a resolution to ban his group and capture Mauk Moruk.

During this controversy, independent media coverage of both sides of the conflict was challenged by the immediate banning of the group by the law ministry. However, the media must maintain independence and perform duties in accordance with the principles of journalism to report on the illegal organization and its leaders.

The position of the media in Timor Leste did not follow parliament or government actions according to the positions of legislators.

The only way in which the politicians to control the mass media is to intervene in the existing provisions in the draft Press Law, which is currently in the hands of the deputies in the National Parliament .

These series of events highlight the need for the Law on the Press that stresses the principle of self-regulation, based on the draft prepared by journalist associations to better guarantee press freedom and freedom of expression. It highlights the danger of a politicized structure, open to intervention from government and parliament.

Already politicization of the media is happening not only due to government interventions but especially in the current draft press law, which until recently has not been known to the public. Furthermore, political parties are also able to set up media outlets, such as the Maubere Radio network of the opposition Fretilin that covers all territories of the country. Timorese parliament can make it possible for political parties to establish the media linked to other parties such as the CNRT and the Democrats who now control the government.

Outlook

In 2013, there were no acts of violence against journalists or media institutions, which are still able to perform tasks and their profession freely and independently.

The press freedom record of Timor Leste has lately been quite promising, if the Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) ranking of timor is any indication, placing the country above others in the rest of Southeast Asia. However, the current draft Law on Press in Timor Leste does not guarantee the better press freedom. Quite the opposite, it has led to the possibility of more threats to of press freedom in the future. Moreover, if the current press draft passes it would open a gap for to politicians to intervene.