Subject: Debate on ET solidarity and Defamation Bill

[via forum-loriku listserv]

Dear Mr. Bob and Ms. Deborah,

Warm Greetings from East Timor

I found your writing in this forum. I deeply thank you for that. You have contributed "something" for the development of democracy in East Timor.

Reading your article, I have no doubt to say that you are really showing your expertise in your field, political observer. Particularly on East Timor.

For an observer, predictions and previsions are mainly needed as basis of their argument. For that, I salute you for all "speculations" you have use as predictions or previsions in your article.

Unfortunately, when you put your political observation to support a draconian law that criminalise defamation, frankly with all respect, I doubt your intelectual knowledge on the development of societies and democracy.

With all limitations that I have as part of a society with "extremely high rates of illiteracy", I consider your social analyses regarding the development of democracy in East-Timor as an expression of intelectual ignorance.

Mr. Bob and Ms. Deborah, "Extremely high rates of illiteracy" does not authomatically mean "extremely high rates of stupidity." And, in modern society, prison is no longer a prefered instrument to educate "stupid people."

In running a state it is too naive to compare East-Timor with others. But living as a society with rules, tradition and costumes, we have been here in this island more than 300 years.

In your writing, you also show your lack of knowledge on defamation law. Do not similarise defamation bill with national security bill, or freedom of information bill. The legitimate objective of defamation law is to protect the reputation of individuals. Once again, individuals, not groups, institutions,including state or symbols.

Struggling for political influence is not exclusively a socio-political "desease" of East Timorese society. It happens everywhere, even in Rome.

Stop considering timorese people as a backwardess society. East Timorese do need support to develop oour country. But we don't need "experts of aspiration".

We do suffer the trauma of those 24 years of conflict. But we are not traumatised by any fear or obstacle to achieve what we asppire to achieve.


Gill Silva Guterres Timor-Lorosa'e Journalists' Association


EAST TIMOR: Defamation Bill

Supporters of East Timor's independence would have been surprised in recent weeks to see petitions circulating from journalists associations and some East Timor solidarity groups calling on President Xanana Gusmao not to approve a decree in the Penal Code creating an offence in East Timor of criminal defamation. The petitions argue that the decree creates harsh and unnecessary restrictions on press freedom and freedom of speech. Most of us who advocate for peace, justice, equality and democracy in Timor-Leste and elsewhere would want to support such calls. But should we?

None of the petitions attempt to analyse the complex context in which PM Alkatiri and his government issued the decree. For some time now, an organised campaign of disinformation has been building up in East Timor, one which is calculated to de-stabilise the still fragile peace and security in that war-torn country. In particular, some members of the political opposition, unable to win more than a small percentage of votes through the democratic election process, have joined members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, and a range of international actors, to vilify the FRETILIN leadership and Alkatiri in particular, accusing him, without evidence, of all sorts of 'crimes' against 'the people', including corruption, and wanting to destroy the Catholic Church. In classic 'dog whistle' politics' now familiar to Australians, these accusations invariably manage to mention that Alkatiri is 'a marxist', or worse 'a communist'; that he is a Muslim, not a Catholic; and that he spent the occupation in Mozambique, not in East Timor. In 2003, one of these anti-Alkatiri campaigns came to a head when the P.M's life was threatened by an angry mob, including known provocateurs associated with the Indonesian military, which burned his family home in Dili to the ground, necessitating increased security arrangements for all members of the Council of Ministers.

Powerful members of the Church hierarchy seem to have set themselves on a collision course with the new government. Unable to win substantial political influence through the opposition parties in the elections, some Church leaders turned to direct action to block the FRETILIN program, which included ending the Indonesian practice of having religion as a compulsory subject in public schools, in keeping with the secular Constitution; reform of laws relating to abortion; and land reform, which threatens the basic economic interests of the Church, one of the country's largest landowners, and of some of its most powerful supporters. In 2005, the Church campaigned to stop the public school reform, and, with assistance from a range of internationals, mobilised several thousand people onto the streets in Dili in a blockade of the parliament. Many of the protestors had been trucked into Dili from outlying districts, told by their local priests that Alkatiri planned to burn down their churches. The Church hierarchy, according to some sources, used violence against young activists who did not support their three week action to undermine public order and bring down the government. Whilst not successful, this interference into state matters forced the Government to concede some ground to the Church on the issue of women's reproductive rights. Despite these relentless and vicious attacks, FRETILIN won the recent village (suco) elections with a greater majority overall then it had achieved in the national elections in August 2001.

Supporters of East Timor might consider a number of issues before adopting a position in relation to these latest developments, in particular, the law on defamation. The first is that democracy is very new in East Timor, which lived under extreme military oppression for nearly three decades, in which almost every family suffered horrifically, and 200,000 people died. Beneath the surface, enormous reservoirs of grief and anguish remain to be dealt with, and emotions can easily be unleashed. At the same time, the economy is still shaky, and the annual rate of growth will lag well behind population growth for the next decade. This means that widespread poverty will continue, and expectations that the fruits of independence would include economic security will take some time to be fulfilled. Australians who were unable to prevent the Howard government from imposing a less than equitable revenue sharing arrangement in relation to Timor Sea oil have to take some responsibility for this situation; as does the rest of the world community. At the very least, supporters of East Timor need to acknowledge the difficulties in which this leaves the new government, which has retained control over economic development only through the courageous stand of refusing any loan funds from the IMF.

Perhaps most importantly the threat to peace and democracy relates to the extremely high rates of illiteracy and basic education. The Indonesians controlled education as a means to promote its ideology of integration, including its virulent anti 'communist' terror, used against any dissenters. One legacy is that there is not a large informed 'public' able to engage in countering the propaganda of those who are seriously threatened by FRETILIN's popularity and its progressive political, social and economic reform program. Fifty percent of the adult population is functionally illiterate, and this figure rises to 90% among women in some rural districts.

The journalists and others who now claim that PM Alkatiri and his Council of Ministers are threatening democracy need to consider more deeply from where the real threat to peace and democracy in East Timor is coming; and to ask why the Council of Ministers felt the need to take this action. A government with a mandate of over 75%, won in free and open elections, is entitled to govern, especially when its reform program provides the only real hope that the mass of the people will, over time, rise out of poverty, and begin to share the benefits of their long independence struggle; and when the resources it has at its disposal remain extremely scarce, and there is neither time nor capacity to respond to continual disinformation and destabilisation. The defamation law is primarily seen by the government as educative. It sends a message to those who wish to use the media and the pulpits to slander the government and its program that they better at least have some evidence on which to base their claims; and that to be irresponsible in such a fragile post-conflict society is a highly dangerous act. A mass adult literacy campaign has already been identified as a major priority by the government, and this is the best defence against the disinformation campaigns being mounted by those elements who wish to remove Alkatiri as leader of the government. But this also takes time, and resources. Perhaps if the journalists and others now condemning the government were to become more vigilant in reporting the internal politics in East Timor, the real enemies of Timor's independence will be drawn into the open, and the people themselves would be able to discourage them from persisting in the actions the law seeks to prevent.

We are not dealing here with a powerful authoritarian bureaucratic state, crushing its people and managing consent. The Timorese public service numbers only 17,000. Basic infrastructure is still not in place in many areas. The government remains dependent on international advisers and aid agencies to assist it with planning and delivering many basic services. Several thousand more young people leave school each year without having completed a basic primary education. East Timor is the Asia Pacific's poorest country, and its one million people need defending, not from the power of its own elected leaders, most of whom are the same people who led the Resistance both from inside and outside for over 24 years, but from the international forces who are determined, as they were in 1975, not to see this tiny country choose a development path which benefits its own people, rather than the economic and strategic interests of regional and global powers.

Bob Boughton & Deborah Durnan

9 February 2006 Email: Australia

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