Timor-Leste considers new media laws that could silence local and foreign journalists

Australia’s closest neighbour, Timor-Leste, has a history of standing up to anti-democratic laws. Their government is now facing backlash over new legislation designed to muzzle both local and foreign journalists. Gabriela Gonzalez-Forward reports from Dili.

Hundreds of thousands of Timorese were murdered under the Indonesian occupation which saw Timor-Leste forced into chaos for almost 25 years. Since claiming independence in 2002, and the UN Mission finishing in 2012, it’s on its way to becoming a vibrant country.

In Australia we heard bits and pieces about Timor-Leste after the International Court of Justice ordered Australia to stop spying following the seizure of documents from a Canberra-based lawyer. But there are many more things happening for the country.

In Australia, Timorese coffee is making its way to popular cafés and films made in Timor are being screened as part of film festivals. On a community level here, the transgender float wins the top award at carnaval and kids are learning a minimum of four languages at school. People rely on old-school media here, as the internet is hard to get and only 1% of the population uses it regularly. Newspapers and radio are still the only source of information for the majority of people.

Standing in the way of taking Timor-Leste forward are a new set of media laws in the final stages of approval—laws which would change and restrict the way information is provided to the people.

Journalists killed during occupation

During Indonesian occupation, news from within the country was hard to come by and made it almost impossible for those fighting for independence to be heard.

In 1975 as the Indonesians started invading, a team of five Australian-based journalists were executed and their bodies burned for reporting on the secret invasion of Timor-Leste. The Balibo Five, as they are known, were killed in their temporary house painted with the Australian flag and their bodies destroyed to hide evidence of the invasion. Journalists were murdered or simply “went missing” because Indonesia didn’t want the rest of the world to know the brutal things they were doing to innocent people.

Some of the first footage to come out of Timor-Leste was video of the Santa Cruz massacre, filmed by two US reporters in November 1991. The scenes show the Indonesian army opening fire on a peaceful group comprised of mainly students as they went to bury their friend who was murdered for being an activist.

Over 270 people were killed that day and in hospital in the following days. The footage was shown on Australian television and provoked a response from the community which led to a huge solidarity movement to free Timor-Leste.

The role outside and underground media played during Timor’s fight for independence should not be forgotten as this new media law waits for approval with the president.

Freedom of the press

Unfortunately if this law does pass, Timor-Leste could become a place where the government muzzles journalists—both local and foreign. They want journalists to be certified, tested and want the power to revoke these licenses at any time.

Under the proposed law journalists would have to fit under the government’s definitions of the profession and if they don’t, won’t get a license and can’t legally practice journalism. This law would be the first media law created by the Timorese government because according to their constitution, the law by default reverts to Indonesian law if it doesn’t exist. There is no evidence right now the law may be part of a bigger effort to roll back democratic reforms in the country, but people are certainly worried it could eventually lead to that but aren’t prepared to comment.

The law passed parliament earlier this year and it is now sitting with the president who makes the final decision on whether to approve the law or send it back to parliament for changes. Think of the president as the Australian Senate when it comes to the power he has to make amendments.

For the first time in his presidency, President of the Republic Taur Matan Ruak has announced he will pass on the legislation to the Court of Appeals to see whether they think the law will “excessively limit the fundamental rights of the citizens” and go against the freedom of the press laws in the constitution. Many organisations in Timor-Leste have written to the president asking him to veto the draft and this is a big step forward for the legislation which could see a change in some of the more controversial sections.

Certain parts of the law are similar to the media laws we have in Australia, such as creating a Code of Conduct and having a Press Council, but the Timorese Press Council will have the power to revoke journalists’ and organisations’ licenses to “exercise disciplinary authority over journalists”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

Editors of local newspapers are already offering themselves up for arrest saying they will never abide by the new regulations. These are the same people who served jail time and torture for resisting the Indonesian occupation. Journalists, if they finally get accredited, will be open to hugely disproportionate fines ($US2000 – $US25,000). When the average income is $US3000 per year, it’s quite clear the fines have been designed to discourage organisations from reporting unpopular government positions and will potentially leave them out of business.

Journalists from overseas

One of the most controversial parts of the law is the impact it will have on foreign journalists.

Jose Luis de Oliveira from Asia Justice and Rights says although he thinks there should be some sort of media law, the restrictions relating to foreign journalists need to be removed from the draft.

“That has to be taken out,” he says. “I don’t think they should need to ask permission but if organisations want to establish an office here they should follow regulations, but not for single journalists.”

At the moment the legislation says any foreign journalist who enters Timor-Leste will have to get a journalism license and will have to ask permission from the government to operate in the country. In addition, to get the license they will need proof they are employees of news networks in their country of origin—which will prove almost impossible for freelancers and students. It will make it much harder for Australia and other invested countries around the world to be kept up-to-date with how the country is functioning.

As the current law which was passed by parliament doesn’t define differences between citizen journalists and professional journalists, anyone using social media within Timor-Leste will need to ask the government if they can report or express opinions.

Future of democracy

The US Embassy in Dili released a statement about the proposed media laws and says when looking at it “we must not confuse truth-telling with political opposition”. Scott Ticknor from the embassy says, “As Timor-Leste considers new media legislation, we stand with Timorese citizens who know and respect the role of a free press as fundamental to the democratic principles that both our nations cherish.”

“Citizens need accurate, timely and independent news they can trust,” he says.” So do businesses and markets. And so do governments.”

Timor-Leste is growing rapidly, the last thing it needs is a muzzle on independent media. The new country prides itself on being a vibrant democracy, but restricting and dictating the media is a huge step backwards because people living both in the country and abroad deserve access to information about what is happening in Timor.

“There are some parts of this law which are very bad for democracy, but we have to work together and work hard to make a law for media in Timor-Leste because the law in a democratic country should not be designed to pressure, but to guarantee our rights,” De Oliveira says.

By Gabriela Gonzalez-Forward



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