Subject: IPS: 'Criminalise Defamation and See Democracy Die'

Also: Portuguese Journalists Supportt Defamation Law


'Criminalise Defamation and See Democracy Die'

Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, Feb 13 (IPS) - Jose Ximenes, news editor of the popular 'Timor Post' daily, shook his head in disgust. ''East Timor's independence and peace were achieved at great cost. We cannot remain silent while some of our leaders endanger our press freedom and undermine our hard-won democratic accomplishments,'' he told IPS emphatically.

What irks Ximenes and the whole media community in the world's newest nation is a three-year jail sentence that journalists will face for defamation in the recently amended penal code, as a result of an executive decree signed by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

On Dec. 6, Alkatiri approved a decree revising the penal code, which had been passed by national parliament. The revisions allow for up to three years of imprisonment and unlimited fines for publishing statements deemed defamatory of public officials.

''This decree-law threatens the fearless nature of a free press,'' said news editor Ximenes. ''It has the frightening effect of silencing not only individual journalists charged but the media community as a whole,'' he added.

Ximenes is worried that his reporters will be restrained in their efforts to criticise those in power. ''My reporters, in particular the ones new to the profession, could be practicing self-censorship motivated by fear.''

International press freedom groups point out that criminal defamation laws are unnecessary in a democracy and that prison penalties for such charges undercut the fundamental democratic principle of free expression.

''Criminal defamation is an affront to free speech in East Timor,'' said the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in a Feb. 10 statement.

''The steps to building a democracy are not paved with draconian laws which punish journalists for doing their work,'' added IFJ's president Christopher Warren.

In a letter to East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York, said the bill threatens journalists whose reports on public officials or government institutions might be considered defamatory, even if the facts are fairly and accurately represented and are reported in good faith.

''Your nation's stated commitment to a free press and to democracy is undermined by measures that provide special protection to public officials,'' added Ann Cooper, CPJ's executive director, in the Jan. 13 letter to Xanana. "We believe criminal defamation laws are unnecessary in a democracy and that prison penalties for such charges undercut the fundamental democratic principle of free expression.''

Cooper appealed to Xanana ''not to sign this legislation, and to challenge the political process that allowed such a bill to get to this stage without a full public debate.''

East Timor's road to independence - achieved on May 20, 2002 - was long and traumatic. The people of the first new nation of the century suffered some of the worst atrocities of modern times. A quarter of the population is thought to have died during Indonesia's 25-year occupation that ended in 1999.

Indonesia finally agreed in August 1999 to let the East Timorese choose between independence and local autonomy. Militia loyal to Indonesia, apparently assisted by the military, tried in vain to use terror to discourage a vote for independence.

When the referendum showed overwhelming support for independence, the loyalists went on the rampage, murdering hundreds and reducing towns to ruins. Even the media was not spared; the territory's only newspaper office was burnt to the ground and all printing machines in the capital, Dili, were destroyed.

An international peacekeeping force eventually halted the mayhem and paved the way for a United Nations mission that helped this nation of a million people Timor to get back on its feet.

The rebuilding of East Timor has been one of the U.N.'s success stories. Working with donor agencies, the U.N. also helped revive independent media outlets in the militia-destroyed territory. Today, reconstructed media in East Timor grapples with the challenges of rebuilding a nation and have an increasingly important role in developing democracy.

As the campaign to stop criminal defamation in East Timor gathers momentum both in the country and overseas, the ball now lies in President Xanana's court.

He has yet to use his constitutional right to veto this decree-law and is awaiting a legal opinion from the appellate court.

''The president has not yet promulgated the penal code as he is awaiting the appellate court's recommendations, and is also considering public opinion on the (defamation) articles,'' Lusitania Cornelia Lopes, the president's chief spokeswoman told IPS.

But signals from the court have not been encouraging.

Court president, Claudio Ximenes, told reporters on Feb. 3 that in his opinion as a lawyer, the defamation articles in the penal code ''are not dangerous to democracy'' in East Timor. ''The situation in East Timor is different from other countries and this article will ensure social stability and democracy in the nation,'' he also said.

He added that several European countries, such as Spain, Germany and Italy, also have similar laws criminalising defamation. ''And these countries are advanced democracies,'' he pointed out. ''So we do not have grounds to say these defamation articles will endanger democracy.''

But president of the Timor Lorosae Journalists Association, Virgilio da Silva Guterres, disagrees. Guterres said the law favours public officials and government leaders and protects them from criticism. In his opinion, it offers little protection for reporting facts that may be construed as defamation.

''The chilling effect of this law will be to prevent people, particularly journalists, to pursue the truth because of the three- year imprisonment as stipulated in this decree law,'' Guterres said.

Local legal experts also point out that this decree law goes against the country's constitution and certain international laws signed by East Timor.

''This decree law violates the East Timor constitution," said Tiago Sarmento, director of the Judicial System Monitoring Programme, a Dili-based legal watchdog.

''It violates article 6, which speaks about the goals of the state, article 40 about freedom of expression and information and also article 41 about freedom of the press and other communications media,'' Sarmento pointed out. ''It also goes against the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which has also been ratified by the East Timor government.'' (END/2006) 


Portuguese Journalists Support Defamation Law

To: IFJ Executive Committee Members EFJ Steering Committee Members IFJ and EFJ Affiliates Dear Colleagues

In the following of the message of 10 February, we explain in attachment the reasons of our opposition to the appeal thrown by the IFJ Asia Pacific about the Penal Code of East Timor. The text attached has versions in the three official languages of the IFJ (En, Es, Fr) and in Portuguese.

Best regards,

José Luiz Fernandes Vice-president

Sindicato dos Jornalistas Portugal Tel.: +351.213467175 / 213464354 Fax.: +351.213422583 E-mail: <>

O Sindicato dos Jornalistas de Portugal demarcate itself from the initiative of the IFJ Asia Pacific in appealing to the President of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, Xanana Gusmão, to veto the Penal Code approved by the Government in the exercise of its constitutional functions.

O Sindicato dos Jornalistas (SJ) disagrees with the position of the IFJ Asia Pacific and considers that the existence of a Penal Code with the criminalising of defamation, including by the media, is not a threat to the freedom of press. In many countries of Europe, also in Portugal, the defamation is considered a crime and it is not for that reason that freedom of press in these countries does not exist.

The IFJ Asia Pacific cannot intend to impose to the countries of the region an Anglophonic vision of defamation. The countries, its parliaments and governments, have the right to choose democratically and freely its laws, without the interference of third ones, even with the excuse of defending inalienable principles as the freedom of speech.

The SJ laments that the IFJ Asia Pacific seems to continue to ignore the realities of journalism and journalists in East Timor. Its position is taken citing the Timor Lorosae Journalists' Association (TLJA), but ignoring the Sindicato dos Jornalistas de Timor Leste (SJTL). Both organizations are affiliated in the International Federation of Journalists and the SJTL is much more representative that TLJA.

O Sindicato dos Jornalistas de Portugal reaffirms its support to the journalists of East Timor and exhort them to defend the freedom of press with responsibility and independence of all the powers and illegitimate mediations.

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