Subject: Walkley Magazine: Laying down the law in Timor (press freedom)

Walkley Magazine (Australia)

Laying down the law in Timor

Turning politicians' support for free speech in East Timor from lip service into law was a tough fight for Timor's year-old Journalists Association. Karen Polglaze reveals the wins and losses.

"Missis, Missis. Ada daftar?" Two people have come to the APHEDA office in Dili, East Timor, and the security guard, Martinho Afonso, is urging them to exercise new political freedoms through one of the oldest means used by ordinary people to communicate with authorities: a petition.

The petition is the Timor Lorosa'e Journalists Association's (AJTL) last-ditch effort to convince the Constituent Assembly to change its mind on freedom of expression provisions.

AJTL celebrated its first official birthday on January 14. Already, in its first year, it had mounted a lobbying campaign of a kind previously unseen in East Timor and its efforts on the Constitution were rivaled only by those of the Catholic Church. The association used a multi-pronged approach to try to convince the 88 members of the Assembly that their quick expressions of support for free speech should be translated into clear descriptions of rights in the Constitution they were drafting.

AJTL used formal submissions, individual lobbying and efforts to involve the public in order to get its ideal article on freedom of expression adopted and to ensure proper provision was made for public access to information. We also campaigned to ensure freedom of association was not compromised and suggested changes to provisions related to the formation of political parties.

Drawing up and debating the Constitution has been a difficult learning process for everyone. At first, the Assembly had 90 days to sort out its own rules and then draw up and debate a Constitution. Three months soon proved far too short and the time was eventually doubled. But that still left only a week for the official public awareness campaign, and that would occur after the draft was approved, leaving almost no room for alteration.

AJTL president Virgilio da Silva Guterres and acting deputy president Hugo Fernandes realised early on that AJTL needed to influence the drafting of the Constitution or the East Timorese people might achieve independence but not have much legal space to talk about what sort of country theirs should be.

Influencing the process rather than being limited to complaining about the outcome is new politics for many East Timorese people and community input to the draft was less than optimum.

Together with help from partner organisations such as Internews, which hired Australian lawyer Caitlin Evans to help with research and lobbying, and a swag of lawyers, academics, journalists and freedom of expression institutions around the world who offered guidance and suggestions, AJTL drew up a strategy, a plan and a hit-list. And of course, our ideal clause for the new Constitution.

We did not achieve the ideal, failing to get a guarantee that criminal penalties would not be introduced for defamation. We also missed out on our somewhat unusual request for a constitutional guarantee of an independent, transparent and non-discriminatory process for the allocation of broadcast frequencies. Concerns a future government will intervene in the media through licensing laws are high in East Timor.

For AJTL, less than a year old, under-resourced, struggling with organisational issues at the same time as running a major campaign and with its most active members extremely overworked, the campaign was long and hard. At one point, it seemed our sole success was in getting a provision outlawing fascist organisations removed from the draft.

The day of the vote on articles 40 and 41 (freedom of expression and freedom of the press) we were in despair. During the long Assembly debate on the issues, a new clause was introduced and passed. Article 40a would provide for the establishment of a high authority for mass communications. We thought we had managed to kill this idea much earlier in the process, but it seemed some of East Timor's new politicians had learned quickly that government control of the media might be a wonderful thing. Then we learned of one more chance to change the draft.

The draft Constitution to be formally adopted this month unusually contains a description of what is guaranteed to journalists. This could end up saving the media from the potentially damaging clause on exercising freedom of expression which, despite AJTL's efforts, contains wording reminiscent of the free press guarantee in the 1945 Indonesian Constitution. That description includes freedom of creativity, access to information, the right to create media outlets and, possibly uniquely, protection of independence and professional confidentiality.

The draft also says the State will guarantee the freedom and independence of the public media from political and economic powers.

Another pioneering positive is the section requiring the rights be interpreted in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AJTL's Guterres and Fernandes tried to ease their disappointment by looking to these provisions which seemed quite strong. But there was still the dreaded article bringing in the high authority and fears it would be used to intimidate the media if courts took a liberal approach to interpreting constitutional guarantees. The idea of having to endlessly fight the government in lengthy and expensive court battles was also unappealing to the AJTL, which as yet cannot even impose a small subscription on its membership.

And then a chance appeared. Assembly member Manuel Tilman, a lawyer who has practiced in Portugal and Macao and who headed the committee doing the final trawl through the document to fix up any problems, suggested AJTL talk to the committee. Another hurried effort, but there was a result. The high authority provision was deleted, and although there was opposition to its removal, the draft Constitution was approved without it.

In the end, we did not need the petition, but every day, Martinho still calls me to give it to him, then he buttonholes visitors to read it and sign it. Martinho is proud of his ability to collect signatures and I will be sorry to tell him to stop. He wants to contribute to the political future of his country and collecting signatures is a way to do that. He wants to add his own name to the petition, too, but that contribution is more difficult. Martinho cannot read or write.


Karen Polglaze is AAP's Diplomatic Correspondent. She is working with AJTL for six months under a program organised by APHEDA and the Media Alliance, made possible through funds raised by Fairfax journalists.

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Good cents

Staff at The Age in Melbourne raised money for IFJ journalists safety fund just by liquidating the contents of a cupboard.

Over the years that Fairfax custom-published the Qantas inflight and Qantas Club magazines, the editors kept travel books, guides and references that had been reviewed. It was quite a library, so when Qantas took their contract elsewhere, and the Grand Book Sale signs went up around the building, Age staff responded with open wallets.

Their generosity resulted in $540.27 cents being sent to East Timor.

This donation came at a crucial time for journalists in East Timor involved in lobbying Assembly members over the new legislative framework in which the media will work. It provided enough funds for the Journalists Association to produce a poster to support their free speech campaign.

Beverley Johanson

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