East Timor’s Justice Minister denies she will block the long-anticipated removal of Indonesia’s criminal defamation law that is still used in the fledging nation, despite using it to bring an action against a journalist who published a series of articles accusing her of corruption.
Jose Belo, the publisher of the respected investigative weekly newspaper Tempo Semanal, will defend his paper against defamation charges for a series of articles he published in October last year, accusing Justice Minister Lucia Lobato of corruption, collusion and nepotism in the handing out of government tenders.
Belo has been charged under Indonesia’s penal code — in which defamation is a criminal act and carries a jail sentence — that has mostly been used in East Timor since it was annexed by Indonesia in 1975. The country has drafted its own penal code, which would make defamation a civil matter.
As justice minister, Lobato is responsible for defending the new law before the country’s Council of Ministers, likely to take place in the next month, before it is enacted by President Jose Ramos-Horta. East Timor’s government has long expressed strong support of free speech.
Christopher Henry Samson, head of Labeh, an East Timorese anticorruption nongovernment organization, said he was concerned the minister would now delay the passage of the new penal code while her own action against Belo was underway.
“The minister knows very well that the [new] penal code has already taken away criminal defamation,” Samson said. “So why would you use [the old] penal code to charge criminal defamation against your own citizen?”
Rosario Martins, a radio journalist and head of international relations for the East Timor Journalists Association, said Lobato had been an advocate of decriminalizing defamation during the writing of the draft penal law.
“But she is on the way to charging Jose Belo, so I don’t think the defamation law will be changed as soon as possible,” Martins said.
Lobato has strongly denied that her criminal defamation case against Belo meant she would attempt to delay the passage of the new penal code. She said she would schedule to have it discussed in the Council of Ministers by the end of the month.
Lobato said she had brought both criminal and civil actions against Belo.
“The court will decide based on the law. If we still have the [Indonesian penal] law that says defamation is a crime, then he will be tried under that,” she said.
If East Timor’s penal law is passed before Belo’s trial, she said, “I still have the civil law.”
“Me also, if the court decides I am wrong, I will accept the result,” she said.
But Belo said no investigation into the justice minister herself had been pursued after his newspaper published the story.
“It’s very sad for my country, that they keep using these former invader’s laws to prosecute me. We should have our own laws,” he said.
“But even in democratic countries, these ministers have to be accountable, they have to investigate at least the allegation of corruption and nepotism itself.”
The minister said that Belo had not given her a right of reply before the article was published, contrary to Tempo Semanal’s claims.
“They should take into consideration the journalists’ code of ethics. All of us have a responsibility,” she said.