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24 December 2008

Justice minister sues East Timor newspaper

ABC Radio Australia 24/12/2008 - A respected newspaper in East Timor has been charged with defamation over a series of stories it published accusing the country's Justice Minister of corruption, collusion and nepotism. The newspaper's director, Jose Belo, says he's prepared to go to jail to defend his publication.

Presenter: Stephanie March

Speakers: Jose Belo, director Tempo Semanal; Mario Carrascalao, East Timorese MP and former president of the Social Democratic Party

MARCH: East Timor's prosecutor-general is bringing a defamation action against the Tempo Semanal newspaper, based on a series of articles it published concerning alleged activities of the Justice Minister. In October, the newspaper accused Justice Minister Lucia Lobato of engaging in corruption, collusion and nepotism during the issuing of a number of government tenders. The reports were based on alleged SMS communications.

Tempo Semanal's director Jose Belo has been a journalist for 13 years, and has worked for a number of international news organisations including the ABC and Associated Press.

BELO: We are not simply just trying to, accuse a minister or defame a minister, but because she is a minister of the justice, this is really in the interest of the public.

MARCH: The government passed a new penal code that decriminalises defamation, however the president hasn't promulgated it yet. That means Jose Belo is being charged under the Indonesian penal code, which considers defamation to be a criminal act. If found guilty he could be fined, or sent to prison. Jose Belo fears the minister is exploiting his limited budget and resources.

BELO: You know the Tempo Semanal is a very poor newspaper in this country - we don't have any money or any resources. So we can't fight a person who has influence [and] who has money. So I presume it is very, very difficult to win this case in the court.

MARCH: In a written response to Radio Australia, Lucia Lobato stated she feels the articles were hurtful and have discredited her both personally and professionally. She says she supports free and fair media, but also supports accountability and responsibility in reporting. Minister Lobato stated she would accept any verdict handed down by the court.

Despite the prospect of jail time, Jose Belo says he'll fight the charges.

BELO: If I just give up, to this kind of attitude by the government it seems likely that I am going to give away to the government to shut down the media here, and it is really bad for the independence of media in Timor-Leste. So I am committed to go and fight in the court, with the evidence we have, based on the evidence we publish these stories.

MARCH: Jose Belo fears the action against his newspaper will discourage other media organisations from investigative reporting.

BELO: I think the other media is very, you know, self-protective. They don't really want to go after this investigative reporting because they know the risk. And I myself understand this risk. But you know we have to come out. If we are serious media we have to come out.

MARCH: Justice Minister Lucia Lobato is a member of the Social Democratic Party - or PSD - one of the members of the coalition government led by Xanana Gusmao. Mario Carrascalao is an MP and member of PSD. He says while he is certain there is corruption in some government departments, he doesn't believe Minister Lobato is guilty of any wrongdoing, but he too says the case could have a negative impact on press freedom.

CARRASCALAO: Of course it sounds not good because this also will prevent some journalists to have the courage to publish what they know, and to stop corruption here we need in fact, how do you say, the press to be really open and to publish everything they know about the wrongdoings made by officials here.

MARCH: A number of corruption allegations have been made against East Timor's government over the past twelve months. The opposition has called for Minister Lobato and a number of other government officials to be sacked in light of the claims, however the only action taken so far has been the charges against the Tempo Semanal newspaper.

During his time as both President and Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao has spoken often for the need for media freedom and transparency in government. Jose Belo says his words have not translated into action to deal with the growing problem.

BELO: Until today is very, very little action has been taken to investigate these cases, and I am apessimist - I'm very, very pessimistic that Xanana will be taking these actions against these ministers.

MARCH: The Prime Minister is developing a new anti-corruption commission. The government hopes it will start functioning in 2009. Mario Carrascalao says it would be impossible to eradicate corruption entirely, but has high hopes the commission will make a big difference.

CARRASCALAO: I believe in one year, two years, corruption will come to a level. It will never be acceptable, but a level that would be reasonable for a country just like ours that doesn't have skilled people and even without mechanism to prevent corruption to happen.

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