Twelve years ago East Timor, or Timor-Leste, was recognised as the 191st member of the United Nations after a devastating 25-year Indonesian occupation. The fledgling democracy has since faced unprecedented challenges in building and maintaining its infrastructure, institutions and society after a UN-effort to help rebuild the tiny, impoverished island of 1.1m people. Adding to this struggle, the government has recently been criticised after a media law was ratified on 7 May, which seeks to regulate the media by imposing restrictions on journalists.
The legislation requires journalists complete a six, 12 or 18 month internship with a certified media organisation that must be recognised by a government-funded press council. These laws effectively exclude citizen, freelance and student journalists from publishing anything, with the prospect of fines and disciplinary action if they do. Foreign journalists, too, will now be compelled to apply to for accreditation and permission from the same council to report inside the country. Further restrictions are enumerated in Article 17, which states that “The profession of journalism cannot be performed concurrently with the following functions,” listing civil servants, office holders in local authorities, members of political parties, people in public relations and those involved in advertising. Violation of this “shall be punished by a fine of $250-$1000”, more than a month’s salary for most Timorese.
The constitution of East Timor is written with admirable clarity and Articles 40 and 41 enshrine freedom of the press and of expression for all citizens. The Timor-Leste Journalists Union pleaded its concern about the restrictive effect the law would have upon them, recognising the long shadow of censorship implicit within it. They were endorsed from outside by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who called “on the government of East Timor to take heed of the concerns raised by its media in developing the country’s new media laws. Any legislation that would limit the capacity of local and international journalists reporting on East Timor also limits the public’s right to know and is of great concern to the IFJ.”
The weekly publication Tempo Semanal is edited by José Belo, perhaps the most eminent and decorated journalist in the country. Belo was rated as ‘one of the top 100 information heroes’ by Reporters Without Borders for his role in documenting the Indonesian occupation and his integral position in building the democratic media in East Timor. He has been vociferous in his criticism of the legislation, saying it “gives excessive powers to a state funded media council with the power to impose penalties that will be used to control journalists.” One of Belo’s exposé led to the imprisonment of a government minister for corruption in 2012, and despite its democratic nature, the country was ranked at 119 out of 177 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Indeed, Australian freelancer Meagan Wymes, of The Dili Weekly, another paper in the capital, wrote that “it is incredibly difficult for journalists to access what should be public information through official channels. When it comes to reporting on corruption in any depth, this tightly controlled environment makes it very difficult. For most investigative stories, leaks are required from within the government or public service.”
Belo went further, saying: “It seems to me the Press Council is likely to be police or prosecutor – even judge – for journalists and media.” Having also worked for outside news agencies – like The Associated Press – during the occupation he was naturally concerned that “foreign correspondents who have played a key role in our struggle for independence will not be able to operate freely” alluding to Article 25 of the new law, which requires agencies of foreign media to register and gain permission before being allowed in to report.
It is the contention of the government that the largely unprofessional nature of the emerging media often results in inaccurate and unbalanced reportage, sometimes blurring the distinction between fact and opinion. A regulatory law and mandatory training is needed to increase standards, they argue. This is not entirely unreasonable and Toby Mendel, an international human rights lawyer for the Centre for Law and Democracy, told Index: “It could be useful for the country to pass a media law. As in most young democracies, the press there is just establishing itself and this inevitably leads to a measure of unprofessional behavior.’” Mendel, though, was critical of a number of “problematic” provisions in the law, and specifically noted “the biggest problem is control over who is a journalist, pursuant to Articles 12 and 13, and the fact no one may work as a journalist without being accepted into the profession. This is completely contrary to international standards.”
There are a handful of daily and weekly publications in East Timor and the print media remains quite small largely due to a near 50 per cent illiteracy rate and high publishing costs. Radio is the widest reaching channel of information reaching some 63 per cent of the population monthly, with public TV estimated to be watched by around half. Internet access is extremely limited, though not censored, and reaches around 1 per cent of the population, according to Freedom House. The US-based NGO also rated the country as “partly free” and reported that already “journalists practice self-censorship and authorities regularly deny access to information. The free flow of information remains hampered by poor infrastructure and scarce resources.” The prevalence of two main languages, Tetum and Portuguese, as well as multiple different dialects, further complicates the process and distribution of news and events to citizens. East Timorese NGO, La’o Hamutuk, added its voice to the sceptics, saying that: “Timor-Leste has already gone for more than a decade without a media law and we have not had problems with media and information, During this time, Timorese people enjoyed their right to information and freedom of expression through various media, after nearly five hundred years of repression and censorship.”
This is a nation where around 60 per cent of the population is under 24 years old and where around 40 per cent of citizens live below the international poverty line. After centuries of Portuguese colonialism –then a brief 10 day sojourn of independence- a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation followed razing the infrastructure and intimidating the populace of the island. The UN mission here had to effectively re-author the state from ruin and is regarded as one of their biggest success stories, producing a self-determining democratic government.
For the optimist it may be that the passing of this law is a well-meaning, essentially benign attempt to produce more professional standards of journalistic conduct. Though it seems a number of the conditions extend beyond that, bordering on constrictive regulation. A government statement read: “Its purpose is primarily to regulate the activity of professionals, adequately prepared and ethically responsible, so that they can inform the public objectively and impartially and encourage active and enlightened citizenship by the population, thus contributing to a democratic society.” All very well in theory, then, though its imposition in practice could be much more sinister.
The passage of time will determine what effect this law has on the press in real terms and it remains unclear how authoritatively the regulations will be enforced. If this nascent democracy is going to develop properly, an unhindered press will be vital to that process. However, these restrictions could, in potentia, open the door for parliamentary encroachment and censorship, stunting the growth of a nation just embarking on its first experiment in self-rule.