10 April 2009

Regional press freedom groups alarmed by Timor Leste's draft media laws

9 April 2009 SEAPA Statement: Regional press freedom groups alarmed by Timor Leste's draft media laws; call on TL's parliament to reconsider passage of laws that threaten free expression

We, members and partners of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), are deeply disturbed by the ongoing consideration of draft media laws that will severely damage the environment for press freedom and free expression in Timor Leste.

As independent media and press freedom advocates from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, and exiled Burmese media, we concur with Mr. Virgilio Guterres, president of the Timor Lorosa'e Journalists' Association (TLJA), a SEAPA partner, when he decries the proposed laws as threatening to press freedom and media independence in the young Southeast Asian nation.

The proposed media laws cover a wide range of matters from access to information to community broadcasting, but are headlined by a draft media law and media council law. These bills, dismayingly drafted by a consultant from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on behalf of the government of Timor Leste, represent a stumbling block to the young nation's path towards democracy and economic stability.

Among the controversial provisions of the bills are proposals to effectively legislate ethics, license journalists, establish a parliament-appointed media council, and to slap hefty fines on reporters violating vague provisions of any of the above-mentioned proposals.

The proposed media council can fine journalists between US$500-US$2,500 and up to US$10,000 for newspapers. The amount of fines will have a serious chilling effect in what is, by any account, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Meanwhile, it is proposed that the members of a national media council (the same body that will have the authority to issue and revoke licenses to journalists) will be appointed by parliament. This goes against the principles of independence and self-regulation that are the hallmarks of genuine and effective media councils in democracies worldwide. (Adding insult, and absurdity, to the threat, the proposed media council will be structured to derive its revenue from fines imposed on journalists; the conflict of interests is plain to see, and all the more dangerous, as the council will have a built-in interest to see journalists penalized.)

On top of all these concerns, the vague wording of the draft laws create an environment of uncertainty that will further lead to self-censorship among journalists. To be fair, the laws also carry provisions to encourage public access to information and general transparency in government, but the climate that will hang over the country's journalists will be so stifling as to negate any of the positive, even sincere, aims behind the proposed laws.

The journalists of Timor Leste are not alone in their strong opposition to this set of draft laws that will deprive them of press freedom.

As press freedom advocates in our own countries--from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, along with exiled Burmese media--we believe the media environment being proposed for Timor Leste will greatly stifle independent news and commentary that are vital to Timor Leste's stability and growth as a nation.

We call on the parliament of Timor Leste to reopen dialogues with all stakeholders, the journalists and media practitioners especially, but also rights and good governance advocates in the country, to reconsider and arrest the dangerous provisions of the proposed media laws before they are passed. More important, we call on Timor Leste's leaders to affirm their commitment to the principles of free expression, press freedom, and access to information in the country. As a young nation, Timor Leste can only be as enduring as the values upon which its laws are made. Absent such respect for free expression and press freedom, the media laws as currently proposed will only ensure that the people of Timor Leste will be deprived any say in the issues and matters that concern the building of their society. They will be vulnerable to corruption, ineptitude and inefficiencies in government, and to their own isolation in matters of public interest. With only about 200 reporters in the entire country, there is concern that restrictions on journalism could lead to a weak and timid media just as Timor Leste is trying to build up its democratic institutions.

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The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (http://www.seapa.org/) is a coalition of press freedom advocacy groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Established in November 1998, it is the only regional network with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom throughout Southeast Asia. SEAPA is composed of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Jakarta-based Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Thai Journalists Association. SEAPA also has partners in Malaysia, Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.

For inquiries, please contact us at: seapa@seapa.org, or call +662
243 5579.
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