The Constitution of Timor-Leste sets out freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Articles 40 and 41. Timor-Leste also has ratified more than ten international human rights conventions, which strengthen the guarantees of freedom of the press and of expression, to help move democracy-building forward in the country.
However, Timorese journalists still experienced threats and acts of violence by members of the country’s security forces. The country’s state prosecutors’ lack of understanding about the role of the media is also a problem in promoting freedom of the press and expression in the country. The Public Prosecution Office has so far taken Timorese journalists to the court three times for charges in line with news stories published by the media. In these cases, the Public Prosecution Office used the Article 285 of the country’s Penal Code, criminalizing slanderous denunciation by media outlets and journalists.
Little-known Press Law
The Press law of Timor-Leste gives more spaces to the Timorese journalists to exercise their duties. It imposes sanctions to be handed down to any state agent trying to impede or threaten journalists working in the public spaces. The Article 41 of the Press Law strictly prohibits anyone or any state agents from seizing equipment, inhibiting, and beating journalists – who are working. A sentence of two until three years of imprisonment could be given to any state agent if they were found guilty of committing the mentioned offences.
However, the lack of awareness of the Press Law also contributes to threats to the freedom of the press in the country. It is necessary to explain the Press Law to the public, especially to the National Police Force (PNTL) and the Timorese Defense Force members as these two security forces are always in the field. They always meet with journalists, who are collecting news stories.
The government through the Secretary of State for Social Communication and the Press Council of Timor-Leste have the legal obligation to inform and educate the public, but especially state institutions and security authorities, so that they can understand and respect journalism and its role in a democratic country like Timor-Leste.
Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo’s decision to file charges against Timor Post’s former editor in chief, Lourenco Martins and reporter, Raimundos Oki has been the major threat to the Timorese journalists. Prime Minister Araujo said that he took Timor Post to court for defaming him by publicizing “fake news” stories to the public, thereby publicly damaging his image and reputation.
The case was brought forward by the Public Prosecution Office of Timor-Leste using Article 285 on slanderous denunciation. While the criminal defamation article has been removed to put defamation under the Civil Code, Article 285 remains a legal trap for any media outlet or journalist.
Former Prosecutor-General Ana Pessoa at an international conference in March 2012 said that Article 285 was applied to all citizens, so no there is no special treatment for the country’s journalists. (A paper, by the former Prosecutor-General Ana Pesoa, presented at the International Conference on Freedom of the Press and Expression in March 2012 in Dili)
The Prime Minister was granted right of response in Timor Post, with the latter even publicly apologizing after a meeting with the official. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister insisted on proceeding with the case in pursuit of “truth.”
Media groups and civil society organizations in Timor-Leste disagreed with the Prime Minister Araujo’s decision to continue with the legal proceedings. Journalist associations, human right organizations, non-government organizations (NGOs) working for the media, and media organizations strongly condemned the Prime Minister’s negative example against the country’s journalists. The lawsuit also drew criticism from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which condemned the legal action and called on Mr. Araujo to withdraw the charges. IFJ also conducted an international campaign to stand in solidarity with the media of Timor-Leste. (An open letter by the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) to Prime Minister of Timor-Leste Rui Maria de Araujo)
In its final trial of the case, the Dili District Court decided to conclude the case against the Timor Post journalists finding them not guilty of the charges filed. The case looms large to those who investigate government officials involved in acts of corruption. It has the impact of self-censorship for the country’s journalists reporting on corruption within the government, and to make media outlets and journalists stay away from possible legal accusation from the Public Prosecution Office. (Report of the Press Council of Timor-Leste regarding mediation for resolving the media outlets’ cases; Media report on Timor Post’s case and notification from the Public Prosecution Office)
The Press Council of Timor-Leste held a meeting with the owner and editors of Timor Post providing them advise prior to the court trial. The Dili District Court allowed the Press Council to send its chairperson Virgilio da Silva Guterres and member Hugo Maria Fernandes to give a testimony on the role and the function of the media in a democratic country like Timor-Leste.
The Timor-Leste Press Council celebrated its first anniversary with a regional conference to promote freedom of the press in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The conference resulted in the “Dili Declaration” of the different press councils to support press and freedom of expression in the region.
Apart from this, in October 2017, the Press Council of Timor-Leste also conducted number of dialogues with local authorities and community members throughout the country by explaining about the media law containing the right to response and the role of the media in the democratic society.
In response to the problems experienced by journalists and the threats to the freedom of the press, the Press Council is drafting an agreement with the National Police Force (PNTL) and the Public Prosecution Office in order to refer all cases related to the media publications to the Press Council for mediation. The draft agreement would also ask the police and the Public Prosecution Office to use Civil Code for cases relating to the media, for allegations of defamation. The courts are also hoped to use the country’s Press Law as a legal basis for cases against any media outlet or journalist rather than the Penal Code. (Discussion and consultation by the Press Council of Timor-Leste with journalists associations and journalists on new code of ethics)
So far, there have been no act of physical aggression or violence against Timorese journalists. The cases recorded were about impeding the work of journalists in the field:
- On 8 January 2018, GMN TV reporters covering stories were shouted at by police officers at a checkpoint near the Palace of the Government. The crew was filming footage as police set up the checkpoints. As the crew was broadcasting the incident on live TV, the incident has drawn support for the journalists;
- On 24 February 2018, the president of the Authority for the Special Region of Oecusse-Ambeno Arsenio Paixao Bano threatened and banned STL (Suara Timor Lorosa’e) Daily Newspaper journalists from covering stories relating to a land dispute between the local authority and the local residents. Journalists and media groups in the country condemned such attitude of the leader toward the reporters. This case has not yet been reported to the Press Council of Timor-Leste. (Journalists’ report on the incident of impediment GMN TV and STL’s new story coverage)
A number of complaints were addressed to the Press Council of Timor-Leste regarding the media’s unfair and unbalanced reporting. The Press Council initiated mediation proceedings to successfully resolve the following:
- On 8 August 2017, the Press Council of Timor-Leste received a complaint from the Office of the President of the Republic over Timor Post Daily’s new stories on the commemoration of the International Children Day. According to the Office of the President, this news is unfair and biased, and therefore it called on the paper to correct it and asked for apology. The Press Council, emailed the Timor Post Daily asking for the right of response to the Office of the President of the Republic and the right of correction. However, the newspaper refused to comply, saying the news story was based on fact.
- On 7 September 2017, the Press Council received a complaint from Burger King International concerning a new story published by RTTL Online (Timor-Leste’s Public Broadcasting). The Burger King Company said that the report was untrue and unfair as the country’s public broadcasting presented only one side of source in its news publications. The case was resolved by the Press Council through mediation.
- On 29 December 2017, the Council of Ministers asked the Press Council for the right to reply to a Timor Post Daily coverage of a government activity. According to the Council of Ministers, the newspaper was not objective in reporting the facts. Timor Post Daily then granted the right to response and correction to the minister.