Subject: East Timor editor sued by minister of justice

also East Timor editor risks jail

East Timor editor sued by minister of justice

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's 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."


Northern Territory News (Australia)

February 10, 2009 Tuesday

East Timor editor risks jail


Press freedom fight

AN EAST Timorese journalist has flown home from Darwin to face prosecution over his attempts to expose alleged official corruption.

Jose Antonio Belo is facing years in the same prison where he was tortured under the Indonesian occupation of his country.

Last year the newspaper he edits, Tempo Semanal, published stories alleging collusion and corruption in the award of government contracts -- including the contract to repair the prison walls he may again find himself behind.

In Darwin last week, Belo vowed to keep fighting for press freedom.

``I'm going to fight in the court for the freedom of the press and democracy,'' he said. ``I will do the time in prison if I have to -- I'm ready for that. I have a responsibility to my people.''

Belo's paper alleged collusion or corruption by Justice Minister Lucia Lobato in contracts to provide a national ID card, prison uniforms, and repairs to the prison walls. He said the contracts were awarded to her friends and associates.

His story included leaked text messages between Ms Lobato and the head of the winning company.

Belo has been charged with criminal defamation -- an old law from Indonesia that is still in place because Ms Lobato's department has not completed the country's new criminal laws. Belo said he wanted his day in court.

``It's good if this goes to court,'' he said.

``For me it's good for us to prove before the court about these allegations.

``I have been involved in the struggle -- the struggle hasn't finished yet.''

In the 1990s he spent a total of three years in Becora prison after being arrested at protests against the Indonesian occupation.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the shooting of East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta and the death of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado.

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