Rights Group Urges Veto of Timor- Leste Defamation Provisions
For Immediate Release
Contact: John M. Miller, 718-596-7668; 917-690-4391 (cell)
2 February 2006 -- The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) has urged Xanana
Gusmao, President of Timor-Leste, to veto the criminal defamation provisions
contained in the country’s new Penal Code.
In a letter to President Gusmao, the group wrote "One of the foundations of a
democratic society is the ability of its people to speak truth to power. If
Timor-Leste's government tries to suppress such speech, we fear for the future
of your democracy and for the future stability of your nation."
"ETAN joins international journalist groups, Timor-Leste journalist and
legal associations, East Timorese Catholic clergy, the UN Secretary General, the
U.S. Secretary of State and others in urging East Timor's leaders to live up to
their constitutional obligation to protect freedom of expression, not limit it,"
said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of ETAN. "The new nation can only
benefit from robust political debate; the proposed defamation provisions will
East Timor's truth commission (CAVR) has also
recommended that defamation not
The proposed law would impose unlimited fines for those convicted of criminal
defamation. Penalties for defamation through the media are greater, as are
penalties (three years in prison) if those defamed are performing "public,
religious or political duties." The truth of the statements would not
necessarily serve as a defense. Legal analysts say that the Penal Code would
grant greater protection to public officials than to others. Under current law,
defamed individuals can sue for civil damages.
East Timor has ratified the major international human rights conventions
which guarantee freedoms of speech and the press, incorporating these rights
into East Timorese law.
ETAN advocates for democracy, justice and human rights for East Timor and
Indonesia. For more information, see www.etan.org.
2 February 2006
His Excellency Xanana Gusmão
President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
Palacio das Cinzas
Dear Mr. President,
We are writing to share
our thoughts on the proposed criminal defamation legislation in the Penal Code
for Timor-Leste. As you know, this legislation has been approved by the Council
of Ministers and is currently awaiting your action.
As long-time friends of
the people and the nation of Timor-Leste, the East Timor and Indonesia Action
Network (ETAN) urges you not to sign this law. We are sending copies of this
letter to the Prime Minister and other leaders of the Parliament and the Council
of Ministers, and we are also urging them not to enact it without your approval.
We celebrate and respect
Timor-Leste’s status as an independent nation, with the right to make your own
decisions and mistakes. We have supported your people’s struggle for
self-determination for 15 years, and are usually reluctant to get involved in
Timor-Leste’s internal affairs. However, in this case we believe that our
experience could help you make a wise decision.
We will not repeat how
the defamation law could stifle freedom of the press and political debate, or
how it violates Timor-Leste’s Constitution and international human rights
treaties which have become part of Timor-Leste’s laws. These arguments have been
ably expressed by others, and we agree with them. We are also aware of the wide
range of people who are urging you not to approve the defamation law – this is
one of the rare times ETAN and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are in
We write to add a
perspective from grassroots, civil society activists for peace and justice based
on ETAN’s experience campaigning against U.S. policies which enabled killing and
repression during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste.
Throughout the 1990s,
ETAN received reports from yourself and others in the resistance about
horrendous human rights violations committed by Indonesian forces against your
people. We distributed that information as widely as possible -- writing about
it in the media, holding press conferences, circulating it among U.S. government
officials, and peacefully challenging Indonesian and U.S. officials and others
who supported or apologized for Indonesia’s brutal oppression of your people and
illegal occupation of your country.
To take one example, in
September 1992, ETAN wrote a public letter to Senator Robert Kasten, a powerful
Republican ally of President George H.W. Bush and a leader of the pro-Indonesia
faction in the Senate. We wrote, “We were disturbed to hear that you have been
working to convince other Senators to restore IMET for Indonesia to the Foreign
Aid Bill. We hope that you understand that such action feeds the perception that
Senators represent lobbyists and not voters.” On October 2, other Senators and
Representatives rejected the Bush-Kasten position, and the U.S. Congress
prohibited IMET training of Indonesian soldiers – the first limitation on U.S.
military assistance in 17 years of occupation. Opposition to Kasten’s support
for Jakarta was taken up by his electoral opponent Russell Feingold, who
defeated Kasten a month later. Senator Feingold has since been one of
Timor-Leste’s strongest and most consistent supporters in Washington.
Fortunately, the United
States has no criminal defamation law like the one contemplated for Timor-Leste.
If it had, we could have been charged with defaming Senator Kasten – or, more
likely, ETAN and other activists would have been intimidated from speaking out
to support Timor-Leste in the first place. Our frequent and true assertion,
usually bluntly stated, that the United States government was complicit in
massive human rights crimes against Timor-Leste’s people would have gone unsaid
and unheard. The growing public pressure that by July 1998 led the U.S. Senate
to unanimously call for a referendum in Timor-Leste, and finally pushed
President Clinton to endorse UNAMET and InterFET in 1999, might never have
One of the foundations
of a democratic society is the ability of its people to speak truth to power. If
Timor-Leste’s government tries to suppress such speech, we fear for the future
of your democracy and for the future stability of your nation.
independence and peace were achieved at great cost. We cannot remain silent
while some of Timor-Leste’s leaders endanger your hard-won accomplishments.
Peace and justice,
John M. Miller Karen
Press freedom under threat in Timor Leste, Dili-based human rights
lawyer Aderito Soares and ETAN's John M. Miller discuss the proposed