To protect or control the media

[Timor Leste country report for Working within bounds: Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: To protect or control the media in Timor Leste]

The 2012 national elections have resulted in a broader national consensus in Timor Leste between the party in power, led by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, with the opposition party FRETILIN. Both political camps have increasingly united in matters of national importance, including on increased control of the media in the context of national political unification.

With the evolution of politics, the media in Timor Leste is required by government to be more professional, with the year on year increase in the State budget expenditures used as a means of control.

With increased decentralization planned for the near future, state officials and bureaucrats have been caught unprepared. Decentralization was brought on to address corrupt practices, nepotism and abuse of the state budget in the implementation of projects at the national and local levels.

Results of investigative reports published in the media have often become evidence for the Anti-corruption Commission and the Attorney General to conduct an investigation of corruption cases.

The fifth constitutional government led by prime minister, who was a former guerrilla commander, rejected these publications, because he considered the media as unprofessional. Also, media reports were seen as disrupting the government’s concentration in developing Timor-Leste.

Critisms of the media come from Gusmao himself, and as a charismatic leader, he has wide influence on how the public will perceive or trust the Timor Leste media. By underestimating the role of the media, the government is also risking its effectiveness and that of the anti-corruption commission in combating corruption.

Media landscape

The public service radio station, Radio-Televisão Timor Leste (Radio-Television Timor Leste – RTTL) is fully dependent on the funding of the state, but it is able to practice editorial independence. There are also 22 privately-run community, religious and political radio stations.

Meanwhile, seven private print media – four dailies and three weeklies – which are not funded by the state, are bound by a distribution contract with the government that subsidizes distribution to villages. One of the newspapers, Suara Timor Lorosae, also operates a radio and a television station.

In terms of advertising revenue, most media can earn up to 70 percent of its publication costs from advertisements. This has impacted on the ability of the media outlets to offer competitive salaries for the journalists. As for content, 85 percent of media news focus on the activities of government. Investigative news regarding corruption cases are still very rare.

Laws and policy

Articles 40 and 41 of the Timor Leste Constitution guarantee freedom of expression and press freedom press, including the freedom to set up new media. With the existing guarantees under the constitution, the legal framework for press freedom in Timor Leste is better than press freedom in most other Southeast Asian countries.

But, it is important to note that the Timor Leste Constitution requires an implementing media law to protect and organize the press and other Timor Leste media. The absence of a media law has resulted in an enforcement gap that has led to lawsuits against publications and journalist reports that are considered harmful to certain persons.

The latest case was of two journalists — of Suara Timor Lorosae (STL) Group and the Independente media — and their news sources were sued by under the Penal Code’s anti-slander provisions. The trio were found guilty in March 2013, but were only meted civil penalties.

With no law to protect the work of journalists, Article 285 on “defamatory false information” of the Penal Code applies to all parties, including journalists. This provision strengthens the Attorney General’s legal basis for using slanderous denunciations if s/he is not satisfied with the content of a news report. Attorney General Ana Pinto Pesoa confirmed in a seminar in March 2013 in Dili that “the slanderous denunciation article is applicable to everyone, including reporters”.

Despite the light penalty, this court decision had sent a chilling signal to journalists and potential news sources, and may impact press freedom and freedom of expression if it is considered in the drafting of the law on the journalistic profession.

Draft media law

The law on the media is currently being redrafted after the then-President Xanana Gusmao vetoed in 2005 a draft designed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The said draft did not sufficiently address the principles of press freedom and freedom of expression and in fact, criminalized defamation.

The coalition government under the majority party in the parliament and Xanana Gusmao as prime minister, in cooperation with journalists associations and media owners, have embarked on the drafting of a new law.

With the legislation process entering the public consultation phase, a draft media law was released to journalists in November 2012. However, all journalists associations, civil society groups and opposition parties opposed the draft legislation, as it did not specifically protect the constitutional principles ​​of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

Fundamentally, the 22-article draft media law’s main objective aimed “to regulate” instead of protecting press freedom and the media from criminal liability or physical and other forms of intimidation arising from journalistic activities.

The draft also suggested regulatory functions of licensing and revocation of licenses to journalists. It also guaranteed, under threat of penalty, the right of reply of parties offended by the press.

Both the Timor Leste Press Council and TLJA urged the government and the five-member media law drafting team to make room for more in-depth discussions before submitting the draft for approval of the national parliament.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a common code of ethics, which would be adopted as a result of the media law, most journalists in Timor Leste remain unaware of ethical behavior of the media.

Threats and violence

Generally, Timor Leste has been free from attacks against journalists. However, during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012, a number of Timorese journalists received physical and non-physical threats from the political parties and unidentified groups.

Two of the three cases related to violence involving a journalist from Diario Nacional (in Lautem) and Timor Leste Centr for Investigative Journalism (in Dili) in March and July, respectively, were triggered by the dissatisfaction of party supporters with the reports or about incidents of inter-party conflict. Both had their tape recorders confiscated. In the third incident in August in Dili, Radio Rakambia journalist Leonito Gonsalves, was stabbed, believed to be as a result of his regular broadcast of stories about alleged corruption.