18 March 2009

Article 19 Observations on the Timor-Leste Draft Media Laws

General observation: The draft laws are unnecessarily complex and, taken together, they are potentially confusing and contradictory. This should be avoided in any legal system, but it is of particular concern in Timor-Leste, a small country with few legal resources. It would be better if the media laws were simplified and integrated into one law, and there should be a separate law for freedom of information.

There are many problems with each of the draft laws, but the main dangers to journalists are in the draft law establishing a Media Council, and in the draft Journalists Statute: Adoption of these laws would seriously damage the ability of Timor-Leste’s citizens to obtain information of public interest.

Aspects of the Laws that are Positive:

• The Laws appear to be well-intentioned
• The Laws seem intended to protect journalists’ rights.
• Some efforts are made to protect the Media Council from political interference – but probably not enough for it to be truly independent.
• Disputes with the media can be mediated by the Media Council, without needing to turn to the courts.
• Media Council decisions can be appealed to the courts.

Aspects of the Laws that are Negative:

• The law imposes duties on journalists that violate their freedom of speech.
• The Media Council can fine journalists or suspend their licenses for practicing freedom of speech.
• The Council can fine journalists for $500-2,500 for journalists, and up to $10,000 for legal entities such as newspapers.
• Sanctions can be imposed for violations that are very vaguely defined, making it impossible for the press to know what activity can lead to a fine or sanction.
• The fines are used to finance the Council’s budget, which gives the Council a motive to impose fines.
• The Council has the power to license journalists – and to take away their license. It is possible, but not clear, that a person can be sanctioned for practicing journalism without a license.
• The rules for obtaining a license have little relationship to professionalism.
• The Council has three branches, which is too complex for a small country with only several hundred journalists.

Image added by ETLJB: Artwork by Arte Moris Living Art School, Dili, East Timor. Artist unknown.

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