Timor-Leste: Journalist sued over report alleging ministerial corruption

A parliament minister has brought defamation charges under Timor Leste’s Penal Code against journalist Francisco Belo Simões da Costa, following coverage of an allegation of ministerial corruption. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joins its affiliate, the Timor-Leste Press Union (TLPU), in calling for the immediate withdrawal of the case against the journalist.

Journalist Francisco Belo Simões da Costa has been accused of defamation under Timor Leste's Penal Code. Credit: Hatutan.com

Timor Leste’s Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Social Communication, Francisco Martins da Costa Pereira Jerónimo, filed a claim against Francisco Belo, the editor-in-chief of local news portal Hatutan.com, over a report regarding allegations of corruption in a ‘set-top-box installation’ project.

Minister Francisco Jeronimo replied to the article, stating the news report about his project was not valid, and his response was republished by Hatutan.com. The minister is responsible for drafting legislation to develop public and private media in Timor Leste.

Following the coverage, Minister Jerónimo brought charges against Francisco Belo, who received a summons from the Dili district prosecutor’s office for defamation under Article 285 of Timor-Leste’s Penal Code.

Francisco Belo gave a statement to the prosecutor’s office on May 23, meeting with officers for approximately thirty minutes. If found guilty under Article 285, the journalist faces up to three years in prison or a fine.

In 2017, two Timor Leste journalists, Oki Raimundos and Lourenco Martins, also faced jail for defamation for their articles about Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo in 2015, but the charges were overturned by the Dili District Court on June 1, 2017.

The TLPU stated that it had verified that Hatutan.com's report about the installation project followed all media laws and the journalistic code of ethics. "We urge Minister Francisco Jeronimo to resolve this case through mediation from the Press Council because journalism is not a crime," TLPU said.

IFJ said: “Governments must ensure journalists can do their jobs safely and securely, including holding public officials and authorities to account, without fear of prosecution. The use of Article 285 is antithetical to the freedom of the press embodied in Articles 8 and 9 of Timor Leste’s Press Law, which establishes the right for journalists not to be subjected to any harassment or interference which threatens their independence and objectivity. The IFJ urges Minister Francisco Jeronimo to immediately withdraw all charges against journalist Francisco Belo.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia - Pacific on ifj@ifj-asia.org

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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