Marianne Kearney, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: February 08. 2009 9:30AM UAE / February 8. 2009 5:30AM GMT
DILI // Press freedom in East Timor, South-East Asia's youngest and
one of its poorest countries, is being stifled as a crusading
reporter is being sued by a government official, rights groups and
local journalists say.
The editor of the investigative newspaper Tempo Semanal is being sued
for defamation by the justice minister, Lucia Lobato, for publishing
a story suggesting that she was awarding contracts to refurbish a
prison and supply prison uniforms to her husband's company and her
The minister argues that the editor, Jose Belo, violated her privacy
and journalists' ethical code by publishing text messages between the
minister and the business associates.
But using the criminal laws of the country's former occupier,
Indonesia, to charge the journalist threatens media freedom, say the
East Timor and Indonesia Network (ETAN) and the International
Federation of Journalists. Local journalist groups have called on the
government to drop the charges.
"Tempo Semanal and Jose Belo should not have to face charges under
this obsolete and repressive law," said John Miller, national
co-ordinator of ETAN.
"Information about government activities should not be subject to
defamation laws. Rather than attack the messenger, [East Timor's]
leadership should support freedom of expression and encourage a
dynamic, investigative media," Mr Miller said.
Reporting about East Timor's nascent but cash-strapped democracy is
notoriously difficult, say local reporters and media watchers, and
few local outlets are able to produce hard-hitting investigative stories.
The country has a handful of newspapers, with limited circulation
outside Dili, that struggle to survive, one national television
station and a few radio stations. Internet penetration is less than
0.1 per cent.
"I'm just glad that they're printing any newspapers at all," said
Fernanda Borges, an opposition MP.
She said a lack of understanding among Timorese about the importance
of critical reporting and the role of media combined with a climate
of intimidation creates a challenging environment for local media.
If the few reporters who dare to expose corruption and malpractice
are targeted with lawsuits, she fears it will set a dangerous
precedent for the young country.
"This risks shutting down democracy in this country before it has
ever taken hold," Ms Borges said.
"You can have the most brilliant institutions for fighting
corruption, but if people are scared to say, 'boo' to the government,
then there is no way you can fight corruption."
Local reporters say the media outlets' limited budget, which means
there is rarely any money to report outside the capital Dili, and
lack of public support for journalists are additional obstacles.
Mr Borges said it was no accident that as more and more reports were
emerging of alleged collusion and corruption in government, the
minister had filed the lawsuit.
Tempo Seminal is one of the few outlets in the country regularly
reporting on corruption within and outside government.
Jose Belo, the editor, started the paper in 2006 with US$1,500
(Dh5,509) and a laptop.
For the first six months, the staff of 13 journalists worked without
pay. But today he has 20 salaried staff, who have broken some major stories.
If the lawsuit is successful, Belo said it would destroy his paper
and silence the country's braver journalists.
"Journalists will think twice before doing these type of stories.
They will begin writing softer stories and telling lies to the
people," he said.
Ironically, Belo, a former member of East Timor's resistance, is
being sued using the same laws that he fought against, prior to the
country's independence from Indonesia.
East Timor officially became an independent nation in 2002, but has
been using Indonesia's criminal code while parliament drafts a new
code, which would still criminalise defamation.
Ms Borges said it appears to be worse than the Indonesian penal code,
because even defaming someone verbally in private was an offence.
"It's sad for me, and for Timor that almost 10 years to the day since
Timor has been free from Indonesia, they're still using this law," Belo
He acted as a liaison between the Timorese guerrilla movement and
foreign journalists, taking them into the jungle to meet the
separatist commanders and smuggling out tapes and information from
the jungle to Australian, British, German and Japanese media during the
He also helped expose human rights abuses by the Indonesian military.
In 1997 he was captured with guerrilla commander David Alex and
jailed for a year.
During his years as a resistance member, he spent a total of three
years in jail. But if found guilty of defamation, he could face six years
Belo said the court case was particularly disturbing, because Xanana
Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader and current prime minister, came
into office in 2007 vowing to fight corruption and to protect freedom
"But with this new government, there has been an increase in
corruption, and they are also very sensitive about media reporting."