Written by Alberico Junior
Dili: (21.8.2020) The Government of Timor-Leste’s policy on removing the defamation law from the Civil Code to the country’s Penal Code, which aims to criminalize defamation amid the global coronavirus (COVID–19) pandemic, has been widely criticised by journalists, academics, university students and ordinary citizens.
They say it is against the country’s constitution, the principle of democracy and the principle of Timorese resistance, which is about freedom.
According to them, the Ministry of Justice’s policy on criminalizing defamation will affect freedom of the press and freedom of expression, which is set out in the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and the International Convention on civil political rights that the country ratified.
The Executive Director of Judicial System Monitoring, Ana Paula Marcal, said the amendment would explicitly ban Timorese citizens from expressing their thoughts and criticism of the Government and politicians in power if they committed acts of corruption or any other criminal acts.
“Everyone is concerned about this amendment of the law, such as civil society organizations, the media, journalists, student movement and the ordinary citizens because this law will explicitly ban the citizens from conveying their thoughts and criticism to the Government, which is in power.”
“Timor-Leste is internationally-recognized as democratic country where all the Timorese people are free to express their ideas and thoughts as it is part our rights to call for the Government to provide us clean water supply and other basic needs, but this law will limit our rights of expression,” she said.
Ms. Ana Paula added this amendment would also impede the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (KAK)’s work, saying a witness in any case relating corruption would not be brave enough to testify.
She called on the Government to scrap its plan of criminalizing defamation as it impacted the Timorese citizens’ rights and said it was good for the country’s judicial institutions to keep using the Civil Code to legally process any case relating to defamation not criminalizing it as Timor-Leste is democratic country.
Meanwhile, the Director of Timor-Leste’s Forum of NGO (FONGTI), Daniel Santos Carmo, said indeed this policy would impact the civil society organizations and the media’s freedom of doing social control to guarantee good governance and accountability for strengthening the country’s young democracy.
“Civil society organizations are the Government’s partner to promote good governance, but if this law is approved, then it would kill the civil society’s will and spirit of carrying out their tasks in controlling the governance. If we criticise the politicians, we would be considered to have defamed them, and then they will take us to courts for legal proceedings. Finally, all NGos in the country would be closed down,” he said.
Mr. Daniel also said this amendment would also impact the Anti-Corruption Commission’s function of preventing and fighting acts of corruption in the country because people would not be brave enough to report cases for investigation.
“The citizens and civil society are afraid of uncovering any case, which is related to acts of corruption if they do not have enough evidence to prove, they could be considered to have defamed others. So, this will kill the civil society organizations’ role of social control,” he said.
The President of Timor Lorosa’e Journalist Association (AJTL), Zevonia Vieira, said all Timorese journalists are against and rejected the amendment of the law as it would only benefit the country’s politicians and protect those in power.
“AJTL totally rejects and against the Government’s policy on criminalizing defamation as it will destroy freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Timor-Leste and it only benefits small group of elite politicians who are in power,” she said.
Ms. Zevonia explained this law would specifically affect the media and journalists’ role in doing investigative reporting into corruption within Government and State institutions. The media and journalist would be forced to self-censor.
“This law is exactly to force the media and journalists to make self-censorship as it will limit them and ban them from doing investigation into corruption cases that happen within the Government and State institutions. If this law is approved, this country will be back to Indonesia’s new order regime and Portuguese colonial time,” she said.
Program Manager of AJAR (Asia Justice and Rights) Timor-Leste, Inocencio Xavier, said this law was produced to paralyze the independent State institutions, namely the Anti-Corruption Commission (KAK) in preventing and fighting corruption. He said it would also affect the media’s role of social controller by doing investigative reporting into corruption.
“It will impact the Anti-corruption Commission’s policy on preventing and fighting acts of corruption in promoting good governance and accountability. The second, it will also affect freedom of the press in the country where the media will be afraid of doing investigative reporting into corruption case and other social issues,” he said.
Mr. Inocencio added that this law was intentionally drafted to protect the corruptors and politicians who were in power from the media, civil society organizations and the citizens’ criticism when they were incapable of ruling the country.
The ex-President of the Republic, Jose Ramos Horta, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, said he disagreed with the Government’s policy of criminalizing defamation as it could damage the country’s image internationally. It was better for the Government to make a positive move to help improve people’s lives as the Government only had two years to rule the country rather than wasting time for criminalization defamation.
In interview with media outlets, Minister of Justice, Manuel da Costa Carceres said the law that he produced would help educate all the Timorese people to respect one another, saying it would prevent the people from insulting others and the country’s leaders publically.
Jim Nolan, IFJ’ legal expert in the Asia Pacific as quoted by Global Voice, noted that Timor-Leste already had a mechanism to address s against media reporting without criminalizing free speech.
Meanwhile, Jane Worthington, the Asia–Pacific director of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) who is also quoted by the Global Voice highlighted an alarming provision in the proposed law.
“This proposed law contains ill defined ‘offences’ and switches the focus of any complaint to the journalists and/or publisher to prove the subject to the complaint. Put simply, it places the legal burden of proving that a story is true upon the journalist and/or publisher,” she said.
The Press Council of Timor-Leste has recently submitted its submission, asking the Ministry of Justice to scrap its plan of criminalizing defamation as it is against the principle of the Timorese resistance during the Indonesia military occupation when many Timorese were imprisoned and killed because they expressed their rights of freedom and independence.
Centro Nacional Chega (National Institute of Timorese Resistance Memory)’s report recommends that the State organs not to criminalize defamation as many Timorese were imprisoned in their struggle for freedom and independence.
The Articles 187 – A to 187 – F stipulates that any person who publically states and publishes through the media and social media facts or opinion that may offend the honor, good name, reputation of a current or previous member of government, church official or any public official can be prosecuted and be punished with up to three years in prison. Alberico da Costa Junior – Freelancer.