Subject: Fears Over East Timor Defamation Law

The Australian

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fears over Timor defamation law

Stephanie March, Dili

EAST Timor's inaugural Journalist of the Year awards last week provided much-needed encouragement for professionals facing an uncertain future, as authorities draft a press law that could make defamation a criminal offence.

At a ceremony in Dili on Saturday, Nelson Filomeno De Jesus from Radio Timor-Leste took the top award, named after five international journalists killed by Indonesian troops in Balibo, East Timor, in 1975.

His story about a failure of the justice system to deal with child sexual abuse won both the top prize and the Roger East award for Best Electronic Journalism, presented by Hollywood actor Anthony LaPaglia.

In the film Balibo, LaPaglia plays East, another Australian journalist murdered while investigating the deaths of the men known as the Balibo Five.

Journalists are continuing to express concern over proposed criminal defamation laws and a plan that could lead to mandatory licensing of journalists in the territory.

East Timor Journalists Association head Gill Gutteres said he was ``deeply concerned'' that legal advisers hired to draft the defamation law came from countries where it was a criminal offence, and feared they would recommend that.

UN-sponsored Portuguese lawyer Isabel Duarte has recommended that journalists be licensed to practice and that defamation be included in the country's criminal code.

``Defamation then becomes a government or state instrument to suppress public criticism of the government,'' Gutteres said.

``That was what happened in Indonesian times and we don't want that repeated.'' Journalists in East Timor are covered by the Indonesian penal code and press law, which includes criminal penalties for defamation, but they have yet to be used.

Since independence, two newspapers -- The Timor Post and Suara Timor Lorosae -- have been sued for defamation. Both were found guilty and fined.

The full weight of Indonesian law was not previously applied, according to Francis Suni, from the International Centre for Journalists in East Timor.

``In the examples I have seen, they didn't use the Indonesian press law,'' Suni said. ``However, that doesn't necessarily mean it cannot be applied or that it won't be,'' he said.

Those in positions of authority were showing signs of support for criminalisation, he said. They argued that fines might not be enough of a deterrent.

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