Timor-Leste (2012): Growing pains of a democracy

[Timor Leste country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]

Like much of the rest of the young nation, the media in Timor-Leste is also in its early growth stage. As it emerges from its recent violent past, starting with independence from Indonesia in 1999 which was followed by a period of violence after attaining statehood in 2002, the country of 1.066 million people is entering a phase of stability and development under the guardianship of the United Nations and is poised to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Unlike quite a few of its Southeast Asian neighbours, Timor-Leste has a free media environment but the press is unable to take full advantage of it, largely due to lack of training and financing. Developments in 2011 affirm that the presidential elections in March 2012 will be the first big test of media capacity and independence.

Multiplicity of media, but limited reach

The number and diversity of media outlets in Timor-Leste is notable given the country’s small population. Some of the interviewees for a 2011 UNESCO report on the development of the media in Timor-Leste believed there were too many publications in the country and not all would survive. A 2006 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) attributes this to multiple international development organizations financing similar projects at the same time in the near post-conflict phase.

The circulation of the four dailies and four weekly newspapers in Timor-Leste, published in the Tetum, Portuguese, English and Bahasa Indonesia languages, does not extend beyond the capital, Dili.  Newspapers are also priced high relative to the average person’s income.

Deficiencies in the transport and distribution infrastructure, which restrict newspaper circulation to the capital, together with the low literacy rates, mean that radio is the main form of media for most people in the country. Besides the state-run national radio station, Radio Timor-Leste, there are three regional, commercial radio stations. A SEAPA fact finding mission in 2009 counted more than 15 community radio stations, with at least one in each of the country’s 13 districts. The second most popular form of media is television with one national broadcaster  and one test-broadcast private station..

Internet access is mostly restricted to the capital. The monopoly held until 2017 by Timor Telecom, the telecommunications operator means that modem, activation and subscription fees are prohibitively expensive for most people. The UNESCO report on Timor-Leste quotes the finding of an unpublished report showing that only 37% of citizens have access to any form of media due to the overall low level of infrastructure development in the country.


Hanging on to the government’s apron strings

The infant media industry is still highly dependent on government support. This can be in the form of direct subsidies, advertisements or aid to widen the distribution of newspapers. While the government supports media development, the reliance on the state could create future challenges for the financial and editorial independence of publications. In a controversial move, the government established a partnership with the National Press Club, justified as ensuring “access to information” through free distribution of newspapers in the main administrative districts ( “sucos”).

Quality issues

While there are many opportunities for media training in Timor-Leste, there are issues of staff retention and development given that journalists are poorly paid and often move to better paid media jobs elsewhere.

Local journalists blame this for the low journalism quality in the country evident in uncritical reporting of government statements, and  with non-governmental organizations having taken on much of the media’s role in investigative reporting.

Self-censorship is also a widespread problem, though local newspapers editors  maintain there is no institutionalized fear of censorship and any self-censorship is entirely an individual journalist’s own decision.

Putting in place a legal framework

At present, the only legal guidelines for the media are to be found in Articles 40 and 41 of the Timor Leste Constitution prescribing freedom of expression and information as well as freedom of the press and mass media. By virtue of a 1999 decree of the UN transition authority, gaps in legislation in Timor-Leste are to be filled by application of the equivalent Indonesian law. Therefore, media in Timor-Leste is governed by the Indonesian Press Law, which has been praised by UNESCO as “progressive” and one “which has protected the rights of journalists and the media well in the Indonesian context.”

There have been numerous attempts to draft media laws since independence. The most recent was in 2009 but the draft legislation was not tabled in parliament due to widespread criticism from multiple actors. In 2010, the government set up a panel with representatives from five media organizations, to review new media legislation proposals. A priority is the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act to facilitate access to public information. External experts and media workers inside the country believe that it is highly unlikely that the media law will be ready in time for the 2012 elections.

Meanwhile, the media community has begun the process of self-regulation by setting up an interim Media Complaint Council. The upcoming elections are targeted as one of the milestones to ensure fair and balanced media reporting.

Police intimidation

In June 2010, Joao da Silva, a photographer and News Writer for Diario Nacional Newspaper based in Dili, was beaten by a member of the National Police. Joao was attacked after he photographed the policeman beating a biker for not wearing a helmet and subsequently refused the policeman’s request to delete the photo.

Joao wanted to bring this case to the court but the case is still being processed by the Dili District police. The police investigation unit has yet to start probing the incident as the Dili police have not concluded its report on the incident.

The fact that there has not been any progress in the investigation after over a year and a half raises questions about the capacity of the police and judicial system to deal with media related cases. The case also shows an overall lack of understanding on the part of the media of the role and rights of the media in the country. The lack of movement towards a resolution in this case could set a dangerous precedent of impunity in cases of police intimidation of the media.

The challenge of the 2012 Presidential election

In 2012 Timor-Leste holds its Presidential election and given current media capacity, accurate and timely coverage of the polls will be a significant challenge.  Indeed, a local journalist association leader expressed fear of “an increased likelihood of threats to freedom of expression with direct impacts on the ability of media to cover the election cycle”, such as politicians attempting to influence journalists to write stories that favor them.

Local journalist associations are aware of the importance of addressing shortcomings of Timor-Leste media and are organizing relevant training. A representative of the Timor-Leste Journalist Association (TLJA) said a media workshop was planned involving both journalists and politicians “so that they could [each] know the role of the journalist on election day”. However, this was not easy because of a lack of funding and trainers, the representative said.

Given the unhealthy financial state of media organizations, there is a danger of politicians and their financial backers influencing media coverage in their favor. The government can also leverage media outlets’ current financial dependence on state support for favorable coverage of its candidates. Some journalists claim that media outlets less critical of the government were receiving preferential treatment such as more frequent invitations to accompany government leaders on trips outside Dili.

The media comes under particular pressure at election time and it is crucial that journalists have the skills to analyze political platforms to enable voters to make informed decisions.

However, the limited public access to media in Timor-Leste is a concern. While voter turnout in the last Presidential election was over 80%, the majority of people had no access to information about the elections from the media.


There is a very clear role for the media in Timor-Leste in 2012 and hopefully the press will rise to the occasion. This is especially important with the United Nations mission, which has been in Timor-Leste since 1999 under different mandates, scheduled to leave after the 2012 Presidential election.

There has been mixed public reaction to this with some welcoming the end of the UN role and others anxious about the political, economic and social implications of the UN withdrawal.

The Timor-Leste economy will remain highly reliant on oil and gas exports in 2012 and the near future, with petroleum earnings equivalent to 340% of non-oil Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the International Monetary Fund. With such high revenues from one resource and controlled by the state, it is even more important for the media to play its role in keeping tabs on those ruling the country.

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