MEDIA-EAST TIMOR: Minister, Editor Wrangle On Over Expose Matt Crooke - DILI, Mar 9 (IPS) - East Timor's justice minister says she will file a civil liability case against newspaper editor Jose Belo, if criminal defamation charges do not make it in court.
Defamation charges were filed by the minister, Lucia Lobato, after a series of reports appeared in Belo's 'Tempo Semanal' newspaper, in October 2008, alleging collusion and nepotism in the grant of government tenders. Belo, 37, was notified of the criminal charges on Dec. 12.
Lobato said: "I agree that the role of the media is very important. I'm not questioning the freedom of the press to write news, but I am questioning the responsibility of newspapers about the information that is provided to the people."
Citing cell phone text messages as evidence, Tempo Semanal published a story titled "Minister for Justice Gives Herself and Friends Projects," on Oct. 12, alleging that the minister had provided inside information to business people about government contracts.
One of the contracts was to build a new wall around Becora Prison while another was to supply uniforms for the prison service. Lobato denies any wrongdoing.
"If you are minister and you receive a message from a businessman asking for information about a project, when he can go to bid and the price and so on, when the minister answers, it's not to say I will provide the project to you. After that, [Tempo Semanal] summarised based on the information of the messages by saying that the minister provided the project to her husband or colleagues. [Tempo Semanal] should have investigated about that, if it's true," she said.
Lobato is adamant that she was not given the right to reply and that an interview appointment scheduled before the story went to print was not honoured by Belo. He said that two Tempo Semanal journalists, who went to Lobato's office on three consecutive days before the story went to publication, were denied interviews with the minister.
Belo's newspaper also published a story alleging favouritism in the award of a 3.4 million US dollar contract to Pualaka Petroleo - a company owned by Lobato's husband, Américo Lopes - to deliver diesel fuel to Timor-Leste's electricity service provider.
"I want justice because my own rights were violated by Tempo Semanal in publishing false information about myself and my family," said Lobato.
Belo said that the attention his case has received from the international media is the only reason why his newspaper has not been shut down.
A number of civil society groups have condemned the defamation charges brought up against Belo. On Mar. 4, La'o Hamutuk released a statement saying, "Justice minister Lúcia Lobato's accusation against journalist Jose Belo, as director of the newspaper Tempo Semanal, creates an ugly picture which can kill freedom of an independent and impartial press. The media will be afraid to circulate clear and accurate information when they know that such information will bring down threats against them."
Nelio Isaac, 35, is the head of news and current affairs for Timor-Leste TV. He said, "The implication to journalists is that they do not have courage to make reports because they are worried of making some issue about corruption of ministers because they can take everything to court."
Timor's current penal code - left over from Indonesian occupation times - is on the way out, to be replaced by a new penal code that could be enacted as early as next month. Defamation is decriminalised in the new draft, but Lobato filed charges against Belo, using an article from the Indonesian penal code.
The latest draft of the new penal code, circulated in October, was discussed in the Council of Ministers on Mar. 6.
"In the last draft, defamation was a crime. I prepared the new penal code and I withdrew that article there. After the approval of the new penal code, defamation is not a crime," she added.
Despite this, Lobato is determined to seek retribution. She said she is prepared to file a civil liability case against Belo if the defamation case falls through.
The current prosecutor general, Longuinhos Monteiro, told IPS, "In our penal code that soon will be promulgated, defamation is decriminalised so we don't want to spend time [on such a case]."
Meanwhile, Ana Pessoa, who will replace Monteiro when he becomes police commander later this month, said, "It is one among thousands of [pending] cases. There is a penal code to be approved where defamation will be decriminalised so it doesn't make any sense to get somebody in jail [for defamation] right now."
Although the media in Timor-Leste has called for an investigation into the claims made in the Tempo Semanal reports, the prosecutor general has not opened a legal case against Lobato.
"I am available anytime, anywhere to be investigated by our national institutions about the allegations," said Lobato.
Belo added, "When I was in the prosecutor general's office, I asked the prosecutor if we could present our evidence, but the prosecutor said we are here to investigate criminal defamation, not allegations of corruption and nepotism."
Although a dark cloud hangs over Belo's Tempo Semanal, he said that his newspaper will continue publishing stories about suspected cases of government corruption, collusion and nepotism.
"We are committed to fighting corruption and we want the government to account for it. We will continue until the government puts me in jail or decides to fight corruption. We are willing to take any risk as a contribution to this country."