11 March 2009

East Timor's Unconstitutional Defamation Case

For immediate release: Monday, 09 March 2009 – Attempts by the government of Timor Leste to push criminal defamation charges against a newspaper publisher will have “chilling effects” on freedoms of speech.

“East Timor has a choice – it can follow other states down a well beaten track towards corruption,” states Pacific Freedom Forum interim Chair, Susuve Laumaea.

“Or it can begin a fresh chapter for resource-rich Pacific Islands by encouraging robust news reportage – even critical commentary.”

Jose Antonio Belo is being sued for criminal defamation because of an article he published alleging corruption by the country’s Justice Minister, Lucia Lobato.

In his article, Belo highlighted a contract between the Justice ministry and that of the minister’s husband, for prison repairs and guard uniforms.

The PFF strongly condemns attempts to limit freedoms of speech in any country and has begun a petition online to back up an earlier effort by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

“Freedoms of speech are laid down in concrete terms in East Timor,” says PFF co-chair Monica Miller.

“We shouldn’t have to remind the democratically elected representatives of Timor Leste about what is set down in black and white in their own constitution – the ruling law of the land.”

“There are extensive constitutional protections for freedoms of speech and, unusually, freedom of the press and mass media,” says Miller.

“For the government of East Timor to hide behind the same colonial laws used by Indonesia to suppress and intimidate genuine efforts towards democracy ignores blood sacrifice by thousands of their own citizens in support of freedom.”

The PFF statement comes after the criminal defamation case was criticised by media workers and researchers, through the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.

More than 85 signatures have been sent to East Timor prime minister; Xanana Gusmao from the Sydney based University of Technology.

“We urge islands media to show solidarity with their colleague in East Timor by signing the petition and encouraging others to do so as well,” says Miller.

“Failure to do so may see a chilling effect on freedoms of speech in East Timor and the region’s youngest media at a time when neither can least afford it.”



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