By Hugo Fernandes
Jose Belo, founder and editor of Timor-Leste’s local weekly newspaper Tempo Semanal, is familiar with uncertain terms. During the Indonesian occupation, the well-known and respected journalist was imprisoned and detained on numerous accounts for his efforts to expose official corruption. Now, Mr. Belo waits again. In October 2008, after his newspaper published an article alleging that Timor-Leste’s Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts, Mr. Belo was charged with defamation, and a possible prison sentence, if convicted. After a year of investigation, Mr. Belo received official notification from the General Prosecutor that the criminal defamation charges had been dropped, but today, civil defamation charges are still in place against him, with no trial date in sight.
Mr. Belo’s current status is a result of the government of Timor-Leste’s decision in October to remove articles that criminalize defamation from its Penal Code.
However, charges of defamation still remain in the Civil Code. Significant legal achievements have been made in the last decade to protect the freedom of journalists. In 2001, the Timor-Leste Journalists Association (TLJA), alongside other organizations, fought to include articles on freedom of expression in the newly-drafted constitution.
More recently, the government and local organizations have attempted to establish a comprehensive media law to protect the freedom of speech and information for print, broadcast, and online journalists. After failed attempts in 2005 and 2006, the current government has requested assistance from UNDP, with input from a number of local journalist associations, to draft a new media law.
Despite such achievements, threats to the freedom of the press still occur, while other challenges such as lack of infrastructure and sufficient training, economic instablility, low readership, and limited access to government officials for comment remain.
Recently, The Asia Foundation and local partners supported an annual award to help motivate journalists and local media outlets to improve their skills, improve the quality of reporting, and promote freedom of the press in Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste’s President Jose Ramos-Horta, a former journalist himself, presented the Journalist of the Year award to TVTL reporter Elizio Pinto Guteres Soares. Mr. Soares also won the Greg Shackleton Prize for best Radio and TV Journalist – an award given in honor of Greg Sackleton, an Australian journalist killed in Balibo Oct. 16, 1975, along with four of his colleaugues (known as the Balibo Five).
Right now, Timor Leste has one weekly and three daily newspapers, one national, three commercial, and more than 15 community radio stations across the country, and one national and one private TV station. In addition, other institutions such as catholic churches, universities, and NGOs host radio stations and publish regular publications.
While censorship is not a major problem for journalists, government attempts to control media by denying access to unscripted government information and officials is. As a result, all news reported out of Dili features similar news angles that journalists were fed during organized press conferences or at official events. Passage of an Access to Information Law is a critical step to improving this problem.
In addition, Timor-Leste’s print media face major challenges with readership and printing costs. With an average income of 50 cents a day and nearly half of the population illiterate, publishers’ expectations are undeniably low. Also, private media must compete with government-sponsored outlets that have the capacity to publish in high volume, with the resources necessary to access a broader audience. Without a higher education system dedicated to journalism training, most of the journalists lack sufficient skills.
In partnership with government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector, The Asia Foundation has provided initial funding to establish a Regional Media Center to address these issues. Such initiatives will hopefully lead to dedicated courses to strengthen the capacity of journalists and the freedom of the press to contribute to building a just and democratic state.
Hugo Fernandes is The Asia Foundation’s Unit Manager in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at email@example.com.