Subject: SEAPA: Press freedom absent from state priorities

Looking back, looking ahead: Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

18 January 2009

Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

EAST TIMOR: Press freedom absent from state priorities

A year after the violence-marred 2007 elections, Timor Leste's media in 2008 slowly returned to some semblance of normality, though with challenges posed by the new-found requirements of democracy and the limitations of infrastructure of a still fragile country.

In the media sector, there were stirrings for some positive change. In 2008 the government announced its position to decriminalize the country's Defamation Law, saying this law will be struck out of the Penal Code when a new version is passed by parliament. The statement was welcomed by the Timor Lorosa'e Journalists Association (TLJA), a SEAPA partner. Decriminalization of the Defamation Law has been one of the most urgent issues impacting the Timores media in recent years.

Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato announced to members of the press gathered at the national parliament that the government will remove the Defamation Law from the country's Penal Code and will treat violations thereof as civil cases. She added that the government will sign into law a revised penal code as soon as the national parliament passes the bill.

However, 2008 ended with the status quo still in place≠illustrating a sense that media reform and the needs and rights of the press are still very low in Diliís list of priorities.

East Timor is not only the regionís youngest nations, after all. It is also the poorest. The infrastructure is poor and the country is drought-prone. But vast offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea hold much potential, and transparency and governance are crucial challenges that must be complemented by free, independent, and stable media.

With support from international development agencies, the basic ingredients for a productive and constructive media sector are in fact in place.

East Timor's national public radio and TV services was launched in May 2002, replacing the interim broadcasting services operated by the UN.

Public radio is said to reach some 90 percent of the population; public TV has a smaller coverage.

Community radio stations play a key role in the process of national reconstruction. Many of them receive funding, training and equipment from international agencies and organisations. One of these radio stations is run by the Catholic church.

In the private sector, East Timor has two daily newspapers and a number of weekly titles. BBC World Service programmes in English and Portuguese are available in Dili via BBC 105.9 FM.

Internet penetration is still minimal, pegged at 0.1% of the population, or 1,200 users, as of March 2008. There is only one Internet service provider, which provides broadband for about US$250-US$300 while Internet cafes charge US$1-US1.50 a minute, far too unaffordable for Timorese≠or even for anybody else in any country of Southeast Asia.


Beyond their fundamental and logistical difficulties, the journalists of Timor also must still contend with an unstable environment prone to violence, says the Timor Leste Journalists Association (TLJA), a SEAPA partner.

TLJA reported that a worker of the East Timor Post was apprehended in February by the military police while he was on his way to deliver the computer files of the newspaper to the printer. The editor was beaten and was brought to the police station where he was attacked again.

The country's State Security officials issued a formal apology for the incident after a formal complaint was filed by the newspaper and in the aftermath of criticism from international media watchdogs. But not without trying to rationalize the attack. The senior layout editor, Agostinho Ta Pasea, was held for 11 hours, the government said, for breaking Dili's 10pm-6am curfew during an official state of emergency.

Canít afford to wait

The challenge for Timorís media will continue to be dependent on the young countryís instability. The low prioritization for media reform and media rights will keep journalists and the press vulnerable and trampled under governmentís resolve for stability and normalcy.

The challenge for transparency and better governance, however≠especially in light of East Timorís need to quickly exploit its natural resources≠will not allow the press to wait. Dili therefore must institute reforms and guarantees for press freedom with as much resolve as it has shown for stabilizing the political environment, because more and more they will have to contend with a more active press that will, in turn, be at risk for more violence and litigation. ___________________________

SEAPA is composed of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (Philippines), the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (Indonesia), the Thai Journalists Association, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. This report was also produced with the help of SEAPAís partners from Cambodia, Malaysia, East Timor, and Burma, namely: the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, the Centre for Independent Journalism (Malaysia), the Timor Leste Journalists Association, and 

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