IFJ Calls for Presidential Veto on Criminal Defamation in East Timor

February 9, 2005

His Excellency, President, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao
C/- Ms. Lusitania Lopes
Head of Public Relations
President Office
Rumbia, Dili, Timor-Leste

Via email: [email protected]

Dear Your Excellency,

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the global organisation representing over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries worldwide, is calling on Your Excellency, President, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao to exercise your constitutional powers and veto the penal code criminalising defamation in East Timor.

The IFJ is calling for the use of your constitutional powers to veto the law in order to fulfil your constitutional mandate of guaranteeing democracy and upholding democratic intuitions.

Criminal defamation is an affront to free speech. It has the chilling effect of silencing not only the individual charged, but also the media community as a whole, encouraging self-censorship motivated by fear.

The IFJ became alarmed over the media situation in East Timor after Prime Minister Mari Altakiri signed an executive decree approving a penal code that criminalises defamation on December 6, 2005, which will enter into force on February 10, 2006 unless vetoed.

The new penal code contains several harsh sections that will have a detrimental impact on journalism in East Timor. Under Article 173, individuals will face three years' imprisonment for defaming public officials, and the code contains no limits on fines.
Moreover, Article 176 doubles the term of imprisonment, from one year to two, where the defamation was committed through the media. Where the defamation is both through the media and committed against individuals performing "public, religious or political duties," the term of imprisonment is increased to three years.

By introducing this Decree Law , the Government of East Timor is moving away from the truly democratic principles of freedom of the press and free speech.

A free press must be held accountable for its actions, but criminal defamation threatens the liberty of journalists, the fearless nature of a truly free press and hits at the very heart of a truly democratic society.

Yours sincerely,