19 October 2012

Press freedom under attack again as two journalists under house arrest

ETLJB 19 October 2012 - Timor Post reported yesterday that the State Secretary for Social Communication Nelio Isac Sarmento said all people who work in justice institutions should understand the media law No. 40/1999 because it is a part of the Indonesian legal system that is currently the applicable law in Timor-Leste. Media freedom is a manifestation of the sovereignty of the people in a democratic country and so media expression should be free.

“But all lawyers should understand the present media law as set out in the referred Indonesian law because we have not yet enacted our own social communication law,” he said.

Sarmento said that the recent accusations against two journalists are a challenge for all media communications in the country.

As Independente reported on 16/10, two journalists are under house arrest at the behest of the Public Prosecutor's office in Dili after they wrote a story about a traffic accident in Oecussi last year.

Raimundo Oki from the Independente newspaper and Oscar Salsinha from Suara Timor Lorosae were put under house arrest because of their report on the traffic accident that killed 3 people, including a nine-year old boy. 

In the story, a member of victim's family demanded a fair solution to the problem. The story said that the driver fled to Indonesia after the accident.

The victim criticised the slow justice process in his district.
The prosecutor said that the stories were incorrect and considers them to have violated the media law.

The Timor-Leste Press Club is standing behind two journalists who will face legal proceeding in due course.

This is not the first time the law has been used to repress press freedom and journalists in East Timor.

In 2008, the then - and now-disgraced Justice Minister, Lucia Lobato, sued an investigative journalist for publishing a story about alleged corruption over a contract to refurbish a prison and purchase prison uniforms from her husband's company. This was a a serious violation of the basic right of journalists to report on a case of alleged corruption and a threat to freedom of the press in the country.

Jose Antonio Belo,the journalist who faced the defamation charges,is the editor in-chief of Tempo Semanal. He was part of the resistance movement against the Indonesian occupation of his country. He spent three years in jail and endured horrific acts of torture from the Indonesian occupiers, along with many other courageous Timorese fighters against the occupation.

Belo was issued with a notification of defamation charges on December 12, 2008, in relation to a series of news reports published on October 12, 2008. He appeared at the Prosecutor's Office on January 19, 2009 and was reportedly questioned for three hours before being released.

At that time, the International Federation of Journalists expressed its concern about the application of fair judicial process, in view of reports that Belo and Tempo Semanal have been denied access to documentation pertaining to the charges by the Office of the Prosecutor-General which was headed by the now Police Commissioner, Longuinos Monteiro.

The IFJ wrote that "the charges of criminal defamation against Jose Belo and Tempo Semanal highlight the two-fold problem for independent media in Timor Leste – the targeting of journalists who report in the public interest and the need for a constitutionally recognised media law which does not criminalise defamation."

In October 2008, Timor Leste's Government released the draft of a new penal code which decriminalises defamation. However, the code is awaiting Parliamentary approval.

All legal actions related to the media in Timor Leste, which was previously occupied by Indonesia, continue to refer to Indonesian law in which defamation may be dealt with as a criminal offence.

"Wherever journalists face the risk of imprisonment for conducting their professional work, the media cannot confidently fulfill its responsibility to act as guardians of the public interest," the IFJ then said.

In the event, Lucia Lobato was subsequently compelled to resign from her position as Justice Minister in Xanana Gusmao's IV Constitutional Government and was convicted by the Dili District Court on abuse of power charges over that contract. Lobato was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment earlier this year and her appeal to the Court of Appeal is yet to be determined.

Defamation had always been a crime in East Timor under the Indonesians, and in the absence of new Timorese laws, the old order remains as the State Secretary for Social Communication Nelio Isac Sarmento noted above.

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 criminalised under Timorese law.

See also on the East Timor Law Journal
Criminal Defamation in East Timor – A Miscarriage of Justice
Defamation – a Crime or Not in Timor-Leste? A Legal Analysis

Author: Warren L. Wright BA LLB

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