Pacific Media Watch

30 May 2014

TIMOR-LESTE: La'o Hamutuk appeals to president to veto new media law

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La'o Hamutuk researchers with Timor-Leste newspapers. Image: David Robie/PMC

AUCKLAND (Pacific Media Watch / La'o Hamutuk): La'o Hamutuk, an independent development watchdog, has called on Timor-Leste President Taur Matan Ruak to veto a controversial new media law that has just been passed by Parliament.

The draconian law has faced widespread criticism by Timorese journalists, media freedom groups, opposition MPs and civil society advocates.

La'o Hamutuk (Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis) says the law "is reminiscent of policies implemented by dictatorships everywhere to hide the reality in their countries from the world, strangling people’s freedom of expression to preserve their power".

The new law will only allow government-registered journalists to write and publish stories; and journalists will only be registered and permitted to work if they are employed by a "recognised media outlet" and if they have done an internship of at least six months in one of these outlets.

It is feared that this will lead to a clampdown on freelance journalists, bloggers, academics, civil society organisations and others.

Several international organisations, including the Auckland-based Pacific Media Centre and Timor-Leste solidarity groups from the US, Japan, Sweden, Australia and the UK have endorsed the letter, as have local NGOs and journalists, who have long lobbied against the new law.

Investigative journalist José Belo, who was tortured by the Indonesian military and later founded the Tempo Semanal newspaper, told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year that he was prepared go to jail to oppose the new law.

Key points raised in the letter delivered to President Ruak yesterday include:

No to compulsory registration of journalists:
"The law must not block the way for anyone to distribute information, even if they don’t have credentials from the Press Council, because everyone has the right to carry out such activities, including sharing information through their personal means, free of censorship or intervention from special interest. In truth, nobody needs to request accreditation to distribute information to the public."

Students should also be allowed to write:
The new law also restricts students from becoming journalists, stipulating that only "adult citizens" will be registered - a human rights violation, says La'o Hamutuk.

"We cannot accept that everyone has to apply for Press Council credentials to do the work of collecting, analysing and disseminating information to the public. The law should protect the diversity of opinion. A key function of the press is to circulate information and opinions from different perspectives, to help people understand various inf ormation, not to give only one view," says the organisation.

New law may discourage journalists from covering dissent:
La'o Hamutuk is also worried that a clause restricting the media to promoting "peace, social stability, harmony and national solidarity” could be used to discourage dissemination of other points of view, and points out that this clause contradicts another which says journalists have a duty to “defend the plurality of opinions, ensuring the ability of expression of different currents of opinion and respect for cultural, religious and ethnic diversity.”

Instead, La'o Hamutuk wants journalists to voluntarily comply with the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which was developed by journalists themselves, instead of being forced by law to comply with a much wider set of rules.

New law 'denigrates' Timor-Leste's liberation struggle:
The letter to the president says the law denigrates Timor-Leste's liberation struggle from 1974 to 1999.

"Many people in the resistance used media to communicate and share information to defend the rights and dignity of the people of this land. The Seara Bulletin and Radio Maubere were among Timorese media which helped liberate Timor-Leste from colonialism and occupation.

José Ramos- Horta, Xanana Gusmão, Francisco Borja da Costa and others used these media to educate, inform and coordinate the struggle for liberation, even though they were not “professional journalists” accredited by the Portuguese or Indonesian governments", the letter points out.

In a vote of support for the international media, La'o Hamutuk says foreign journalists should not be required to get Press Council approval before reporting on events in Timor-Leste.

Nine journalists had given their lives reporting on Timor-Leste's liberation struggle. "If they sought accreditation from Suharto’s “Dewan Pers”, Timor-Leste might still be under Indonesian rule today," the letter says.

No need for the press to be regulated by law:
For the past decade since Timor-Leste's independences, the media has functioned well without a law. It was for the first time in almost 500 years that the Timorese people could freely express their opinions and read whatever they liked, La'o Hamutuk wrote.

"We believe that there is no urgency for Timor-Leste to create a press law, especially a defective one like this, which will reverse our society’s advances toward using social and other media to exchange ideas without limitation...Timor-Leste can continue with the freedom of expression and the press defined in our Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with the good intentions of our leaders, journalists, media owners and entire society" the letter concludes.

La'o Hamutuk's letter to the president

La'o Hamutuk's media law web page

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Anna Majavu

PMW contributing editor 2014

Anna Majavu is the Pacific Media Watch freedom project contributing editor for 2014.