Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are outlined in the Article 40 and 41 of the Constitution of Timor-Leste. The country also has ratified more than 10 international conventions relating to human rights and civil and political rights, which of course recognize the roles of press freedom and free expression in democracy building.1
The Press law of Timor-Leste guarantees that Timorese journalists are able to exercise their duties in public spaces without state intervention. The Article 41 of the Press Law strictly prohibits anyone or any state agents from seizing journalistic equipment and inhibiting and beating journalists, who are working. If found guilty of committing the mentioned offences, any state agent may receive a sentence of two up to three years of imprisonment.
Despite the ongoing growth of democracy and enjoyment of these rights, a number of Timorese journalists experienced threats and acts of violence, particularly from the country’s security forces’ members.
The lack of understanding of the country’s legal practitioners (prosecutors) about the role of the media as a social control is also a problem in promoting press freedom and free expression. The country’s Public Prosecution Office took Timorese journalists to court thrice for news stories published by media outlets citing Article 285 of the Penal Code, which is about criminalizing “slanderous denunciations.”
The lack of socialization of Timor-Leste’s Press Law also contributes to the threats to press freedom 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 and would tend to run into journalists who are looking for news stories. The government through the Secretary of State for Social Communication and the Press Council of Timor-Leste have legal obligations to promote and uphold the referred law to the public, the State institutions, and the country’s security authorities so that they understand and respect journalism in a democratic country like Timor-Leste.
Cases of threats and attacks
Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo’s decision to take Timor Post’s editor in chief Lourenco Martins and his journalist Raimundo Oki to court has been a major threat to Timorese journalists. The Prime Minister said he filed a case against Timor Post because it published fake news stories and that it publicly damaged his image and reputation. This issue has made the country’s journalists and media outlets more careful and abide by the existing code of ethics in writing and transmitting any news story. In this regard, the country’s journalists have resorted to self-censorship when reporting government-related corruption. Media outlets and journalists have used this recourse to avoid legal sanctions from the Public Prosecution Office.2
The Public Prosecution Office of Timor-Leste files criminal lawsuits against any media publication, which causes damage to the image and reputation of others. The criminal lawsuit refers to the country’s Penal Code, Article 285: Slanderous Denunciation. This Article has been a major threat to press freedom and free expression in the country. The Defamation Article has been removed in the Penal Code to the country’s Civil Code. However, Article 285 remains a legal trap for any media outlet or journalist trying to spread fake information.3
At an international conference in March 2012, former Prosecutor-General Ana Pessoa said that Article 285 applies to all citizens including journalists.4 There is no special treatment for the country’s journalists since journalists are also Timorese citizens. How would democracy look like in the country if Mr. Martins and Mr. Oki were put in prison? Of course, this is a deterioration in the process of democracy building in the country. This despite the country being documented with a high level of press freedom in Southeast Asia by the Freedom House.
Numerous incidents of violence against journalists and impediment of journalists in the public space happened when they were in the field collecting news stories. Certain individuals working as state agents threatened journalists and seized their equipment – namely camera, recorders, and other supporting facilities. Some Timorese journalists were also treated differently in a number of meetings and conferences.5
On 26 July 2016, Timorese journalist Jéronimo da Silva Amaral – who work for the Business Timor Weekly newspaper – was beaten by PNTL members from the Department of Traffic when he took the picture of the police officers who were on duty. The police officers forced and took him to the police station for inquiry. After several days, journalists associations AJTL and Timor-Leste Press Union (TLPU) protested the incident and called for an investigation into the case as acts of crime and human rights violations. Subsequently, the journalists’ associations and Business Timor Weekly took the case to the Public Prosecution Office for legal action. But so far, the case has not yet been tried and the perpetrators are still free. In a press conference, the Press Council of Timor-Leste condemned the incident and also called for a legal action.
On 29 October 2016, online newspaper TAFARA.ORG journalist Martinho Moniz was maltreated by police officers and Timorese Defense Force (F-FDTL) soldiers at the polling center in the southern municipality of Covalima. AJTL and TLPU protested the case and called for an investigation. The journalists associations took the case to the Press Council to help contact and push the police and the defense force top commander to look into this matter. There have been a number of times that security forces’ members were reported to have threatened and maltreated the country’s journalists during coverage. The case is pending before the Public Prosecution Office and has yet to proceed as a legal case.
On 25 November 2016, TAFARA.ORG held a roundtable discussion on violence against journalists and threats to press freedom in the country. The police top commander, president of the Press Council, and representatives of the journalists’ associations attended the event. The police commander pledged to take a strong action against his members and said that since the case was an act of crime, then it must be taken to the Public Prosecution Office for legal proceedings.
On 5 January 2017 at the Nicolau Lobato International Airport, a number of journalists from newspapers, radio, and online newspapers were not allowed to cover a news story related to the return of Timorese popular singer Mari Vitoria from Indonesia. Security officers, who were working at the airport, banned the journalists from covering the event. Journalists and the journalists’ associations condemned the incident as it has impeded their access to information. The next day, representatives of the journalists and the journalists’ associations submitted their protest statement to the Press Council of Timor-Leste.6
On 12 January 2017, a number of journalists were discriminated and not allowed to cover the Vitoria’s trip to Indonesia. Only the country’s public television was allowed to broadcast the event. Airport officer Jose Along also threatened the journalists saying he would break their cameras, which is a clear violation of Article 41 of the Press Law.7
Responses of media groups and civil society
Media groups and civil society organizations in Timor-Leste disagreed with Prime Minister Araujo’s lawsuit as it has threatened press freedom and free expression in the country. Journalists’ associations, media outlets, media non-government organizations, and human rights groups strongly condemned the Prime Minister’s negative action against the country’s journalists.
The right of reply was granted to the Prime Minister and Timor Post even publicly apologized for the mistake it had made during a meeting with him at the Palace of the Government. But unfortunately, the Prime Minister kept taking the case to the court because of the so-called truth.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) criticized the Prime Minister’s lawsuit and called for the withdrawal of the legal charge. IFJ also conducted an international campaign to stand in solidarity with the media of Timor-Leste.8
In this regard, the Press Council of Timor-Leste held a meeting with the owner and editors of the Timor Post daily advising them before the court trial was held. The Dili District Court has sent a notification to the Press Council allowing a media expert to testify in the court regarding the case before it makes a verdict. The expert is expected to provide information on the role and function of the media in a democratic country like Timor-Leste.
On 3 May 2016, AJTL held an international conference about the freedom of the press including the issue of the Prime Minister’s legal case against journalists. Representatives of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and IFJ shared their views regarding press freedom in Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific, particularly the situation in Timor-Leste.
To address the threats to press freedom and other issues related to journalism practice, the Press Council of Timor-Leste would make an agreement with the PNTL and the Public Prosecution Office to refer all media cases to the council for mediation. Part of the agreement also include that these two state institutions use the Civil Code when dealing with media cases, specifically when they damage one’s image. The court is also encouraged to use the country’s Press Law as a legal basis for trying any media outlet or journalist rather than using the Penal Code reasoning that journalism is not a crime.9
Asosiasaun Jornalista Timor Lorosa’e (AJTL, Timor Lorosa’e Journalists’ Association or TLJA) is a non-profit organization established on 22 November 1999. AJTL carries out a number of important missions: to advocate for pluralism, peace, freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and help build the capacity of Timorese journalists in contributing to quality information.10
Existing in a newly-established country of Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste, AJTL is playing a very important role in the process of state and democracy building in which it continues to build the capacity of its members throughout the country as professionals. Apart from providing trainings, AJTL is also building cooperation with other media organizations and State institutions such as the Press Council of Timor-Leste to support the practice of the code of ethics and help promote the country’s media law to all the Timorese journalists and the public.
The socialization of the code ethics has been a huge task for AJTL in making Timorese journalists aware of the journalistic principles to avoid news stories that cause public’s concerns and/or lead to legal charges. The Timor Post Daily newspaper’s case, which has been filed in court, was a lesson learned for all media outlets in Timor-Leste in terms of having independent editorial policies and acting more professional when publishing new stories. AJTL remains proactive in partnering with all the media outlets and the media practitioners to respond accordingly to issues that may inhibit the freedom of the press in the country because of the political environment and conflict.
1 The Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (RDTL) and the Press Law of Timor-Leste.
2 Media report on Timor Post’s case and notification from the Public Prosecution Office.
3 The Penal of Code of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (RDTL).
4 A Paper by the former Prosecutor-General, Ana Pesoa presented at the International Conference on Freedom of
the Press and Expression, March 2012 in Dili.
5 A statement by Timor Lorosa’e Journalist Association (TLJA) and Timor-Leste Press Union (TLPU) submitted to the
National Police Force (PNTL) and the Press Council of Timor-Leste
6 A statement by Timor Lorosa’e Journalists Association (TLJA) and Timor-Leste Press Union (TLPU) submitted to the Press Council of Timor-Leste.
7 Media report and the Press Law of Timor-Leste.
8 An open letter by the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) to Prime Minister of Timor-Leste Rui Maria de Araujo.
9 Discussion and consultation by the Press Council of Timor-Leste with journalists associations and journalists on new code of ethics.
10 The Constitution of Timor Lorosa’e Journalists’ Association (TLJA) and a Proposal submitted to the Ministry of Social Communication (SECOMS).