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22 May 2009

East Timor turns 7 but press freedom in peril

By Ed Lingao, Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism DILI, East Timor: At the foot of a bridge guarding the east entrance to East Timor’s capital Dili, a small concrete marker proudly proclaims the name of the street in Portuguese: Avenida Da Liberdade de Imprensa—the Avenue of Press Freedom.

'I think this is one of the longest avenues in the city,' said Virgilio Guterres, head of the Timor Lorosa’e Journalists Association (AJTL).

The street was so named to honor the foreign and local journalists who fought and died during East Timor’s two-decade long struggle for independence from Indonesia, which culminated in a 1999 United Nations-sponsored plebiscite where the Timorese voted for self-rule. Guterres said they plan to inscribe the names of those who died for press freedom on the marker’s base. There are 14 names in all, a large number for a small island with a population of roughly a million.

But the marker was damaged long before it could be finished. Its marble face now shattered, and the marker is largely ignored by passersby who wait for the ubiquitous Mikrolet, the public conveyance that is a cross between a small bus and a smoke generator.

To many journalists here, the marker’s fate mirrors that of the promise of press freedom in the world’s youngest democracy. And as the country marks the seventh anniversary of its independence from Indonesia today, journalists here say they are up against yet another battle in the war for their own freedom.

At issue is a set of draft media laws prepared by a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) consultant for the Timorese Parliament’s consideration. If promulgated unrevised, the draft laws would require state licensing for journalists, define the jobs and set the qualifications for the hiring of journalists, and set up a media regulatory council appointed in part by the government.

Although the drafts have not yet been officially submitted to the legislature, journalists’ groups are raising a howl over their implications on Timor’s young media. Recently, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) even saw it fit to send to Dili a team of journalists from across the region, among them this writer, to assess the possible impact of the draft laws.

The alliance is a press freedom advocacy group founded by independent media organizations in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, including the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Alliance of Independent Journalists of Indonesia and Thai Journalists Association.

No to licensing

“We object because we don’t want to be licensed,” Guterres said. “Journalists are at the forefront of the freedom of expression. When you license them it means you are limiting them [from doing their job].”

For many Timorese journalists, the draft laws simply reek too much of the not-so-pleasant past. Under Indonesian rule that lasted more than two decades, East Timorese journalists had labored under the watchful eye of the heavy-handed Indonesian military. Information was heavily regulated, military censors screened video and audiotapes, and journalists were regularly harassed. Freedom of the press was practically non-existent.

And now this: besides requiring state licensing of all journalists, the draft laws also set the prerequisites for the hiring and accreditation of a journalist, including minimum age (17 years), educational background (secondary school), and work experience (five years minimum).

Curiously, the draft laws are unclear on how a prospective journalist can acquire the minimum five years of journalism experience to qualify for the license, if he was not allowed to work in the profession before he could qualify.

“If this media law comes to implementation, then we will lose or miss our honeymoon on press freedom,” said Guterres. “If this law comes to implementation we will revert to that era of when we were under Indonesia where people are afraid to speak, afraid to go to jail, and people are influenced to make self censorship.”

“People could not understand [how this happened],” said Roby Alampay, executive director of the press alliance.

“We are pleased that this [alliance] mission is coming out,” countered Lars Bestle, UN Development Program regional policy specialist on access to information, e-governance and media development. “We are taking all these inputs and comments into account into these drafts.”

UN officials stressed that the draft laws are “zero-drafts,” meaning they are the first in a series of revisions before they are submitted to Parliament. The UN agency also said that at least two consultative workshops were held with Timorese journalists before the drafts were made.

Traumatized by violence

For now, it looks like the journalists have the country’s top leaders on their side.

“This is a poor country traumatized by the violence of the past,” East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta told the visiting journalists from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. “If we traumatize journalists with legal restraints, [what will happen then?]”

Ramos-Horta himself was a journalist who was forced into exile in East Africa by Portuguese authorities during East Timor’s colonial period. He told the visiting alliance members that he would rather deal with a rowdy press than a media muzzled by the same kinds of laws he had fought against.

“Let them write what they want, even irresponsibly,” he said. “But [no matter] how irresponsible it is, it is no reason for those in power to say that to prevent this, let’s do this now. I don’t agree with that.”

“The media often make mistakes in their report, that is true,” Ramos-Horta added. “But how many more mistakes, more serious, has government made? When government makes mistakes, we can lose millions of dollars, and yet no one holds us responsible.”

It’s also not as if this young country’s press does not already have enough challenges. For almost a decade now, there has been a tug of war between officials who want to decriminalize defamation, and those who want to retain it under a new Timorese Penal Code.

Shield vs. free press

Defamation had always been a crime in East Timor under the Indonesians, and in the absence of new Timorese laws, the old order remains.

Several journalists have already been convicted of the crime of defamation. In 2004, for example, a Timorese court found journalist Antonio Aitahan Matak guilty of damaging the good name of the East Timor Police Force, and sentenced Matak to eight months of house arrest.

The administration of former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, ousted in 2006, pushed to have defamation criminalized under Timorese law. Some Timorese officials still want it to stay in the statutes, as a shield against a critical press.

Both Ramos-Horta and East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, however, have expressed their strong opposition to criminalizing defamation. Ramos-Horta said he was confident that the new Penal Code decriminalizes the act of damaging someone’s reputation. But that remains to be seen, as the new Penal Code, drafted by the justice ministry, will be published and promulgated only later this year. Until then, Timor’s journalists will have to watch their backs.

“It is important to decriminalize defamation in East Timor,” Alampay said. “Everyone has assured us that East Timor is heading in that direction, but everyone reminded us that the new revised penal code is yet to be printed, so we would like to see the final product.”

The courts are certainly not the Timor media’s only problem. Violent incidents against journalists rose dramatically in 2006, as rivalries within the national police and defense forces threatened to tear the nation apart and eventually led to Alkatiri’s resignation. Journalists were beaten up; some even had their homes torched, but no one has ever been charged or officially accused in connection with these.

Serious threats

While these incidents have not been repeated since, the violence casts a long shadow over Timor’s media community. These days, every time a politician or a group makes a threat, even a veiled one, it is taken seriously.

“If we go to make a report . . . they [sources] say that is not enough. They want all [the airtime],” Nelio Isaac Sarmento, news chief of Televisao de Timor-Leste, the state-owned TV station, said of some news sources. “They say, ‘Tomorrow, I see you on the road, andS I will hit you.’”

“Some government officials still don’t know the role of the media,” said radio journalist Rosario Martins. “They [say], ‘If you put that, I will sue you or I have my supporters find you.’”

“This goes back to the 2006 crisis,” Martins explained. “Other officials of government think that media should contribute to the peace. But they [think] that peace [means] no critics.”

But the longest shadow of all is cast by history. Before Indonesia occupied it in 1975, East Timor was a Portuguese colony, during which Timor’s media were heavily regulated and undeveloped. In fact, critics of the draft laws point out that the UN Development Program consultant who drew them up is a Portuguese media expert who appears to have used her country’s media laws as model. Portuguese media laws also provide for a media council, and state licensing for journalists.

And while the younger Timorese journalists bristle at the very idea of state control, some of their older colleagues seem to find nothing wrong with being required to have licenses from the state.

No middle ground

This may be because during the Indonesian rule, Timorese reporters either surrendered their own independence to the security forces, or they worked or sympathized quietly with revolutionary groups such as the pro-independence Fretilin. There was hardly any room for a middle ground.

These days, Fretilin is one of the dominant political parties in parliament, a development noted in a 2006 United States Agency for International Development (USAID) media assessment report on East Timor. Said the report: “Many observers pointed out that many journalists may have participated in the resistance movement [against Indonesia] and as a result are somewhat reluctant to criticize certain members of Fretilin, now the ruling party.”

But other issues were more basic. “A common complaint is that newspapers tend to reprint press releases verbatim, or with just one or two changes,” the report said. “The government communications officer noted that he tends to give press releases to reporters on a flash drive or floppy disk, since reporters were complaining about having to retype them.”

Alarming enough on the surface, these issues would have long-term effects if left unaddressed, the USAID media assessment team wrote. “If government communication skills keep improving while progress in media professionalization does not keep apace, a serious imbalance could develop between the government’s ability to tell its side of the story and the media’s ability to critically analyze government spin.”

Fewer journalists

All these have already taken their toll on local media. In the span of nine years, the number of local journalists has halved. Guterres recalled that there were some 300 local journalists in 2000, just a year after Indonesia was forced to give up East Timor. Now there are only around 150.

“Why? I think it is because the development of media here is not like in other countries,” Guterres said. “The media is started not by big businessmen or rich people but by small groups of journalists who want to reach more people. Most of them rely on international funding. That’s why when the international funding dried out, they changed their direction to Afghanistan or Iraq, these media groups that rely on that, stop or die.”

“There is no large market of journalists here, because economically, young people here are not interested to be journalists because they are underpaid,” Martins said. “A reporter is not paid periodically. Sometimes they get $50 for three months, sometimes they don’t.”

There’s also the reality of having a population that is too poor to buy newspapers, much less television sets.

While the government boasts of a 12.5-percent economic growth last year, East Timor basically still has a dual economy: one geared toward servicing a massive yet temporary international donor community; and the other that is 90-percent agriculture based, and nearly immobile.

Prior to finding oil deposits in the Timor Sea, East Timor’s only exports were sandalwood and coffee. Until now, there is no industry to speak of, no manufacturing. Unemployment in the countryside is at 20 percent. In the urban areas, it runs as high as 40 percent.

Telecommunications infrastructure, the backbone of media communications, is also far behind. In 2006, there were only 2,400 telephones in East Timor, and 1,200 Internet users. By comparison, Somalia has 100,000 phone lines, and Afghanistan has 280,000 lines. Cellular-phone users in Timor now number 69,000, but a unit is still too expensive for reporters to use regularly.

Trying to help, the government has been buying up copies of the daily Suara Timor Lorosae (STL) and the weekly Tempo Semanal, and then distributing these to the public for free. But the only other daily, the Timor Post, refused the government’s hand—and is now barely breathing.

Free newspapers

While the arrangement looks very comfortable for at least two publications, journalists here know it will eventually cause problems. Guterres said, “It’s not a better way to teach people to get information, because in the future, when people get used to getting [newspapers] for free, they don’t want to buy anymore.”

The USAID report said as well, “Donors dumped funds into the sector in order to ensure the continued existence of specific media outlets. Despite best intentions, this may have inadvertently distorted the natural development of the media market, with the end result being that there are now many more media outlets than the advertising market can naturally sustain.”

Besides, some say that if a newspaper survives only because of government handouts, it has surrendered more than its economic independence.

“This cooperation can influence the media, because [the journalists] don’t want to be critical of government because government will stop buying their newspaper,” said Guterres.

In the end, all the stakeholders in East Timor’s media agreed that what they had was not a right, but an obligation to ensure that the Timorese press remains free and independent.

“We have a strong commitment [to press freedom], not because we want to, but because our history obliges us to do so,” Guterres said. “We reached independence because of the freedom of the press that we enjoy.”

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