Friday, 2 January 2009

Justice minister sues East Timor newspaper

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Justice minister sues East Timor newspaper

Updated December 24, 2008 09:37:52

A respected newspaper in East Timor has been charged with defamation
over a series of stories it published accusing the country's Justice
Minister of corruption, collusion and nepotism. The newspaper's
director, Jose Belo, says he's prepared to go to jail to defend his

Presenter: Stephanie March

Jose Belo, director Tempo Semanal; Mario Carrascalao, East Timorese
MP and former president of the Social Democratic Party
* Listen:

MARCH: East Timor's prosecutor-general is bringing a defamation
action against the Tempo Semanal newspaper, based on a series of
articles it published concerning alleged activities of the Justice
Minister. In October, the newspaper accused Justice Minister Lucia
Lobato of engaging in corruption, collusion and nepotism during the
issuing of a number of government tenders. The reports were based on
alleged SMS communications.

Tempo Semanal's director Jose Belo has been a journalist for 13
years, and has worked for a number of international news
organisations including the ABC and Associated Press.

BELO: We are not simply just trying to, accuse a minister or defame a
minister, but because she is a minister of the justice, this is
really in the interest of the public.

MARCH: The government passed a new penal code that decriminalises
defamation, however the president hasn't promulgated it yet. That
means Jose Belo is being charged under the Indonesian penal code,
which considers defamation to be a criminal act. If found guilty he
could be fined, or sent to prison. Jose Belo fears the minister is
exploiting his limited budget and resources.

BELO: You know the Tempo Semanal is a very poor newspaper in this
country - we don't have any money or any resources. So we can't fight
a person who has influence [and] who has money. So I presume it is
very, very difficult to win this case in the court.

MARCH: In a written response to Radio Australia, Lucia Lobato stated
she feels the articles were hurtful and have discredited her both
personally and professionally. She says she supports free and fair
media, but also supports accountability and responsibility in
reporting. Minister Lobato stated she would accept any verdict handed
down by the court.

Despite the prospect of jail time, Jose Belo says he'll fight the charges.

BELO: If I just give up, to this kind of attitude by the government
it seems likely that I am going to give away to the government to
shut down the media here, and it is really bad for the independence
of media in Timor-Leste. So I am committed to go and fight in the
court, with the evidence we have, based on the evidence we publish
these stories.

MARCH: Jose Belo fears the action against his newspaper will
discourage other media organisations from investigative reporting.

BELO: I think the other media is very, you know, self-protective.
They don't really want to go after this investigative reporting
because they know the risk. And I myself understand this risk. But
you know we have to come out. If we are serious media we have to come out.

MARCH: Justice Minister Lucia Lobato is a member of the Social
Democratic Party - or PSD - one of the members of the coalition
government led by Xanana Gusmao. Mario Carrascalao is an MP and
member of PSD. He says while he is certain there is corruption in
some government departments, he doesn't believe Minister Lobato is
guilty of any wrongdoing, but he too says the case could have a
negative impact on press freedom.

CARRASCALAO: Of course it sounds not good because this also will
prevent some journalists to have the courage to publish what they
know, and to stop corruption here we need in fact, how do you say,
the press to be really open and to publish everything they know about
the wrongdoings made by officials here.

MARCH: A number of corruption allegations have been made against East
Timor's government over the past twelve months. The opposition has
called for Minister Lobato and a number of other government officials
to be sacked in light of the claims, however the only action taken so
far has been the charges against the Tempo Semanal newspaper.

During his time as both President and Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao
has spoken often for the need for media freedom and transparency in
government. Jose Belo says his words have not translated into action
to deal with the growing problem.

BELO: Until today is very, very little action has been taken to
investigate these cases, and I am apessimist - I'm very, very
pessimistic that Xanana will be taking these actions against these

MARCH: The Prime Minister is developing a new anti-corruption
commission. The government hopes it will start functioning in 2009.
Mario Carrascalao says it would be impossible to eradicate corruption
entirely, but has high hopes the commission will make a big difference.

CARRASCALAO: I believe in one year, two years, corruption will come
to a level. It will never be acceptable, but a level that would be
reasonable for a country just like ours that doesn't have skilled
people and even without mechanism to prevent corruption to happen.

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