Subject: Justice in East Timor On Trial in Libel Case
February 6, 2009
Justice in East Timor On Trial in Libel Case
'It’s very sad for my country that they keep using these former invader’s laws to prosecute me. We should have our own laws.' Jose Belo, Tempo Semanal publisher
East Timor’s Justice Minister denies she will block the long-anticipated removal of Indonesia’s criminal defamation law that is still used in the fledging nation, despite using it to bring an action against a journalist who published a series of articles accusing her of corruption.
Jose Belo, the publisher of the respected investigative weekly newspaper Tempo Semanal, will defend his paper against defamation charges for a series of articles he published in October last year, accusing Justice Minister Lucia Lobato of corruption, collusion and nepotism in the handing out of government tenders.
Belo has been charged under Indonesia’s penal code in which defamation is a criminal act and carries a jail sentence that has mostly been used in East Timor since it was annexed by Indonesia in 1975. The country has drafted its own penal code, which would make defamation a civil matter.
As justice minister, Lobato is responsible for defending the new law before the country’s Council of Ministers, likely to take place in the next month, before it is enacted by President Jose Ramos-Horta. East Timor’s government has long expressed strong support of free speech.
Christopher Henry Samson, head of Labeh, an East Timorese anticorruption nongovernment organization, said he was concerned the minister would now delay the passage of the new penal code while her own action against Belo was underway.
“The minister knows very well that the [new] penal code has already taken away criminal defamation,” Samson said. “So why would you use [the old] penal code to charge criminal defamation against your own citizen?”
Rosario Martins, a radio journalist and head of international relations for the East Timor Journalists Association, said Lobato had been an advocate of decriminalizing defamation during the writing of the draft penal law.
“But she is on the way to charging Jose Belo, so I don’t think the defamation law will be changed as soon as possible,” Martins said.
Lobato has strongly denied that her criminal defamation case against Belo meant she would attempt to delay the passage of the new penal code. She said she would schedule to have it discussed in the Council of Ministers by the end of the month.
Lobato said she had brought both criminal and civil actions against Belo.
“The court will decide based on the law. If we still have the [Indonesian penal] law that says defamation is a crime, then he will be tried under that,” she said.
If East Timor’s penal law is passed before Belo’s trial, she said, “I still have the civil law.”
“Me also, if the court decides I am wrong, I will accept the result,” she said.
But Belo said no investigation into the justice minister herself had been pursued after his newspaper published the story.
“It’s very sad for my country, that they keep using these former invader’s laws to prosecute me. We should have our own laws,” he said.
“But even in democratic countries, these ministers have to be accountable, they have to investigate at least the allegation of corruption and nepotism itself.”
The minister said that Belo had not given her a right of reply before the article was published, contrary to Tempo Semanal’s claims.
“They should take into consideration the journalists’ code of ethics. All of us have a responsibility,” she said.
Marianne Kearney, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: February 08. 2009 9:30AM UAE / February 8. 2009 5:30AM GMT
DILI // Press freedom in East Timor, South-East Asia's youngest and one of its poorest countries, is being stifled as a crusading reporter is being sued by a government official, rights groups and local journalists say.
The editor of the investigative newspaper Tempo Semanal is being sued for defamation by the justice minister, Lucia Lobato, for publishing a story suggesting that she was awarding contracts to refurbish a prison and supply prison uniforms to her husband's company and her associates.
The minister argues that the editor, Jose Belo, violated her privacy and journalists' ethical code by publishing text messages between the minister and the business associates.
But using the criminal laws of the country's former occupier, Indonesia, to charge the journalist threatens media freedom, say the East Timor and Indonesia Network (ETAN) and the International Federation of Journalists. Local journalist groups have called on the government to drop the charges.
"Tempo Semanal and Jose Belo should not have to face charges under this obsolete and repressive law," said John Miller, national co-ordinator of ETAN.
"Information about government activities should not be subject to defamation laws. Rather than attack the messenger, [East Timor's] leadership should support freedom of expression and encourage a dynamic, investigative media," Mr Miller said.
Reporting about East Timor's nascent but cash-strapped democracy is notoriously difficult, say local reporters and media watchers, and few local outlets are able to produce hard-hitting investigative stories.
The country has a handful of newspapers, with limited circulation outside Dili, that struggle to survive, one national television station and a few radio stations. Internet penetration is less than 0.1 per cent.
"I'm just glad that they're printing any newspapers at all," said Fernanda Borges, an opposition MP.
She said a lack of understanding among Timorese about the importance of critical reporting and the role of media combined with a climate of intimidation creates a challenging environment for local media.
If the few reporters who dare to expose corruption and malpractice are targeted with lawsuits, she fears it will set a dangerous precedent for the young country.
"This risks shutting down democracy in this country before it has ever taken hold," Ms Borges said.
"You can have the most brilliant institutions for fighting corruption, but if people are scared to say, 'boo' to the government, then there is no way you can fight corruption."
Local reporters say the media outlets' limited budget, which means there is rarely any money to report outside the capital Dili, and lack of public support for journalists are additional obstacles.
Mr Borges said it was no accident that as more and more reports were emerging of alleged collusion and corruption in government, the minister had filed the lawsuit.
Tempo Seminal is one of the few outlets in the country regularly reporting on corruption within and outside government.
Jose Belo, the editor, started the paper in 2006 with US$1,500 (Dh5,509) and a laptop.
For the first six months, the staff of 13 journalists worked without pay. But today he has 20 salaried staff, who have broken some major stories.
If the lawsuit is successful, Belo said it would destroy his paper and silence the country' braver journalists.
"Journalists will think twice before doing these type of stories. They will begin writing softer stories and telling lies to the people," he said.
Ironically, Belo, a former member of East Timor's resistance, is being sued using the same laws that he fought against, prior to the country's independence from Indonesia.
East Timor officially became an independent nation in 2002, but has been using Indonesia's criminal code while parliament drafts a new code, which would still criminalise defamation.
Ms Borges said it appears to be worse than the Indonesian penal code, because even defaming someone verbally in private was an offence.
"It's sad for me, and for Timor that almost 10 years to the day since Timor has been free from Indonesia, they're still using this law," Belo said.
He acted as a liaison between the Timorese guerrilla movement and foreign journalists, taking them into the jungle to meet the separatist commanders and smuggling out tapes and information from the jungle to Australian, British, German and Japanese media during the 1990s.
He also helped expose human rights abuses by the Indonesian military. In 1997 he was captured with guerrilla commander David Alex and jailed for a year.
During his years as a resistance member, he spent a total of three years in jail. But if found guilty of defamation, he could face six years jail.
Belo said the court case was particularly disturbing, because Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader and current prime minister, came into office in 2007 vowing to fight corruption and to protect freedom of speech.
"But with this new government, there has been an increase in corruption, and they are also very sensitive about media reporting."