EAST TIMOR: Tackling Corruption Head On By Matt Crook DILI, Aug 13 (IPS) - After a string of corruption allegations were levelled against Xanana Gusmao’s coalition government, a civil society organization in East Timor Thursday launched an anti-corruption campaign it says will help tackle East Timor's endemic corruption head on.
The National Campaign Against Corruption, spearheaded by non-governmental organization Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH), will use local radio and community-level meetings to raise awareness of corruption issues in East Timor’s 13 districts, says Christopher Samson, LABEH executive director. The campaign will have a "powerful and positive impact on the government" he says, because "only a fool will steal when the people are watching him".
"We will distribute it to the people so that people can listen to what is happening in their own district to give them the power and awareness that something is happening in the country," he told IPS.
Students, journalists, members of the public and representatives from non-governmental organizations gathered at the LABEH office in the Comoro neighbourhood for the campaign launch and a discussion about corruption.
Samson says that by raising awareness of corruption at the community level, would-be wrongdoers will think twice before breaking the law.
"As soon as the television shows that LABEH has launched a national campaign on anti-corruption… they will say, ‘Oh! Something is happening – everybody knows about this.’ It will make them think just for a while and we will see what steps the government will take," Samson said.
East Timor’s government has come under fire with allegations of corruption, while the opposition FRETILIN party has called for the prime minister and key government ministers to resign or be fired.
On Aug 6, FRETILIN parliamentary leader Aniceto Guterres said Minster of Justice Lucia Lobota and Minister of Finance Emilia Pires must go after a damning report by East Timor’s Ombudsman of Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ) Sebastiao Ximenes alleged the pair had been involved in corrupt dealings.
The justice minister made headlines last year amid allegations she gave inside information to business people vying for justice ministry contracts to build a new wall and supply uniforms at Becora prison.
Dated Jul 2, the ombudsman’s report recommended Gusmao take action against the pair for allegedly failing to adhere to the proper processes of procurement.
Meanwhile, on Aug 7, the government issued a press release accusing the ombudsman of failing to get all the relevant documents related to the contracts and delivering a report "derived from half-baked information".
Government spokesman Ágio Pereira said the government was "bewildered by the slanderous conclusions" of the report. Eusebio da Costa, director of good governance for PDHJ, said the government would be within its rights to reject the report.
"Our competence is just to give recommendations... We can’t go beyond our mandate," he said.
"According to the statute of our office, we have to report with transparency to check if the government is performing its tasks with transparency," he added.
"We took a long time to prepare this report and now some people say that the recommendations are not correct. Well, that’s the right of the government," said da Costa. Christopher Samson says the government’s reaction was "defensive".
"I could only say that most of the members of government do not understand what the work of the ombudsman is. The ombudsman’s work is not judicial. The ombudsman is a state watchdog watching on the movement of the members of government," he said.
"It has nothing to do with the law and therefore those who stood against the report of the ombudsman did so because it has to do with them personally," he added.
Prime Minister Gusmao was himself the centre of a scandal in June when he was accused of signing off on a $3.5-million rice contract awarded to a company his daughter allegedly owns an 11% share in.
Before that, in May, the finance minister was accused of giving high-salary jobs in her ministry to under-qualified friends of hers.
Speaking at the campaign launch, Vice-Prime Minster Jose Luis Guterres warned that East Timor’s reputation is in tatters.
"The perception abroad is that there is a lot of corruption in East Timor. That is something that is destroying our image. The corruption in our country makes East Timor unattractive to foreign investors," he said.
"If sometimes we say there are cases of corruption, we have to take these to court so the court can decide who has been involved in corruption so they can go to jail and be expelled form the government or the civil service because the people, after all these years, deserve a better life," he added.
Also at the launch, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General Finn Reske-Nielsen said, "Growing concerns about corruption all around the world have seen the United Nations get agreement from 140 countries on the UN Convention Against Corruption, which East Timor has already ratified."
But ratifying the convention is only the beginning, says Christopher Samson.
"Internationally it makes East Timor a country that has come to the point where the government, parliament and the state are complying with international practises on fighting corruption, but then to report to the United Nations commission for anti-corruption in New York will be another story," he said.
In the meantime, Samson and LABEH have a lot of work to do if they are to come good on the goal of raising awareness of, and ultimate reducing, corruption in East Timor.
"This campaign is to raise awareness and then those people who are involved with it will gradually, gradually stop it," he said.