Timor-Leste: Can the criminal defamation law in Timor-Leste be stopped?

The proposed criminal defamation law in Timor-Leste deals a blow to the reputation of a country founded firmly on the ideals freedom of expression, writes Jim Nolan.

Timor-Leste Press Union together with Timor-Leste Journalists Association (AJTL) had a long march along the route of Liberdade Impress or the Press Freedom Street on the World Press Freedom Day 2019. Credit: TLPU

In early June the government of Timor-Leste announced that it proposed to introduce new criminal defamation laws.  The proposal was met with an immediate backlash from press freedom advocates NGOs and many politicians.  The IFJ presented the government with a detailed critique of the proposal.

On July 19, the national director for legal affairs at the Ministry of Justice, Nelinho Vital, informed journalists that the government would remove Article 187 (paragraph B, number 1) from the proposal after hearing public criticisms of the law.

Nelinho Vital said s187-B would be removed. This section deals with what is known as ‘aggravated penalties’ -- these penalties, if adopted, would mean that a sentence would be doubled or tripled if the defamation was of a public figure and/or through the media (including social media).

It must be emphasised that Article 187-A remains in the proposed law. This article still criminalises all defamation, including that of public officials, political parties, and/or through the media.  These offences will still carry penalties of a fine and up to one year in prison.

Upon scrutiny, the only ‘concession’ offered by the Ministry of Justice, turns out to be no concession at all.  All it achieves is a clumsy attempt to blunt the serious and well-founded criticisms levelled by civil society groups.  The substance of these criticisms has been left unanswered by this present proposal.

It has been obvious since the inception of the proposal that it has been driven by thin skinned politicians who would like to enlist the power of the state to intimidate journalists.  Is it possible to think of anyone other than politicians and powerful figures who would have any interest in invoking this law.

No protection for journalists

In its earlier advice, the IFJ warned that the proposal:

- deals a blow to transparency in government by permitting politicians and powerful individuals to use the power of the state to prosecute journalists;

- provides no defences of any kind, let alone any public interest defences, for published materials;

- provides no protection for journalists and their sources;

- provides no guidance for prosecutors;

- will make the law worse than the equivalent law in Portugal.

The IFJ noted that the proposal is directly contrary to the stated positions of numerous international human rights bodies, including the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Organization of American States - all of whom have urged states to repeal criminal defamation laws.

All of the criticisms of the original proposal stand.  None have been answered by the Ministry of Justice.

The proposal would be disturbing on its own, however it comes in a month when there have been region wide attacks on the media - in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.  All of the attacks are calculated to intimidate and silence a free media and scrutiny of those in power and abuses of power.  If enacted, this proposal will have the same impact. 

The important question for citizens and civil society groups in Timor-Leste remains.  Can these proposals which threaten Timor-Leste’s political freedoms be stopped?

Jim Nolan is the International Federation of Journalists’ pro-bono legal counsel for the Asia-Pacific and a regular legal observer on legal cases in the region.