27 June 2012

Deciphering Rumors and Limiting their Spread

Fundasaun Mahein 25/06/2012 The recent reports/claims of women being harassed and assaulted by Military Police in Dili and Baucau for wearing clothing above the knee has reminded us again of the difficulties posed by rumors and possible misinformation in Timor-Leste.

Until now, no complainants have been identified and not a single incident has been verified. Following an internal investigation led by the F-FDTL, Genera Lere Anan Timor on Thursday June 21st denied the allegations and claimed that the rumors were “a cheap political statement by politicians to damage F-FDTL’s image”.

Fundasaun Mahein (FM) is not in a position to confirm or deny these rumors, however we would like to bring attention the government’s inaction in providing any sort of explanation or for taking any action on this matter. The President as well as both the F-FDTL & PNTL have come out on this issue late last week. FM welcomes their statements but laments their tardiness. Politicians on the other hand have remained silent, most likely more concerned with campaigning.

FM has received a number of calls from concerned individuals on this matter, providing second hand accounts of these referred incidences and a general sense of confusion prevails among a significant section of the population on the legality of girls wearing short skirts. With security actors slow to respond to the accusations and with no government official or institution giving clear legal clarification on the issue, the rumor has gained momentum and there is now significant concern within the community.

As this rumor persists, young girls are growing worried and so are their parents. This affects their sense of security and self-confidence. Why has no official come out to explain to the general public that there is no law that allows police or military police to take any action with regards to girls’ choice of clothing?

That could have been an effective first step in handling the situation, and limiting the drawbacks from the spread of the rumor. Rumors create a sense of panic, which can lead to instability. It hinders people’s daily activities, and right now with the lead up to the parliamentary elections, it deters people’s attention away from the campaigns and their involvement in the democratic process.

FM would like to make a simple recommendation. We expect our government to take swifter, more decisive action when rumors break out. We expect government institutions to get right down to the bottom of such rumors so as to provide the public with a clear confirmation or denial and explanation. In other words, we expect a more pro-active approach to be adopted by both the government and the security institutions.
A special independent body could be created where people could seek clarification on such rumors. Finally, FM understands that politicians themselves are sometimes the source of rumors, and this is why the media has a major role to play in uncovering the truth about rumors. We expect our media to engage in high quality investigative journalism and to confirm incidences before reporting and printing them.

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