24 February 2014

Everyone has the right to free expression and access to information

Committee A of Timor-Leste's Parliament is considering a law to regulate journalists and media.  On 19 February, they invited La'o Hamutuk and the HAK Association to present and discuss our views. Click here for more information, including the text of the draft law.

La'o Hamutuk wrote a submission (Tetum or English), from which the following is abridged:

La’o Hamutuk appreciates the invitation from Committee A to discuss the draft Media Law, and we hope to help you improve this legislation so that it benefits the people and respects democratic values and human rights according to Article 40 of Timor-Leste’s Constitution and Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which we have ratified and is legally binding.

The law must not limit everyone's right to access and distribute information freely by defining only a few people as “journalists.” Although Article 17 and a few other parts of the draft law protect people’s rights, many other provisions restrict the rights and freedom for everyone to access, receive and distribute information.

Article 3 limits the Right to Information to “citizens.” This violates the Constitution and the ICCPR, which guarantee that every person (not only citizens) has freedom of speech and the right to inform and be informed impartially. “Citizen” should be changed to “everyone,” which should also be done in preamble paragraph 2, and Articles 6, 11, 13 and 22. Non-citizens should not be barred from being journalists.

Articles 4 and 13 and the definitions in 2(e) and 2(f) support freedom of the press only for professional journalists working for commercial media outlets and certified by the Press Council. They should not exclude others who seek, collect, analyze and disseminate information, which is how the law defines “journalistic activities.” This law should respect every person’s right to free expression, including students, bloggers, web-posters, civil society organizations, free-lancers, part-time reporters, discussion groups, churches, political parties, columnists, researchers, community groups and ordinary people. It should not be monopolized or controlled by for-profit media. Please remove Articles 6-8 from the Media Law and use Constitution Articles 40 and 41 as the legal basis for “journalistic activity.”

Timor-Leste should not have a Press Council, which recalls the unholy partnership between media and the Suharto dictatorship. As freedom of expression is already guaranteed by the Constitution, no Press Council is needed to regulate it. A Council of commercial media organizations and paid journalists can self-regulate their business, including with their Code of Ethics, but their processes cannot be imposed on everyone and should not involve the state, either through financial support or legal enforcement. Furthermore, no journalist should be required to join an organization in order to practice his or her Constitutional rights.

Timor-Leste’s struggle against colonialism and occupation relied on independent and unofficial media. Forty years ago, José Ramos-Horta, Xanana Gusmão, Borja da Costa and others used the Seara bulletin and Radio Maubere to educate, inform and direct the people's struggle for liberation, although they were not “professional journalists” certified by Portugal or Indonesia. Many non-Timorese journalists, including Roger East, the Balibo five, Sander Thoenes, Agus Mulyawan, Kamal Bamadhaj, Amy Goodman and Max Stahl, advanced our struggle beyond our borders; the first nine gave their lives for this country.

Unfortunately, Articles 6 and 13.8 would restrict the activities of journalists from other countries, while the law should reflect the contributions by free media toward achieving and strengthening our peaceful, democratic nation under rule of law, which respects human rights and values.

Although the preamble states that “This Act aims to ensure freedom of the press, promoting the necessary balance between the exercise of this fundamental freedom and other constitutionally protected rights and values,” the law strays far from these objectives. For more than a decade, Timor-Leste has not had a Media Law, with no problems with media and information. After nearly 500 years of repression and censorship, Timorese people can finally exercise our rights to information and free expression. We hope that this law will not move us backwards. Thank you.

At the hearing, Committee A President Carmelita Moniz assured us that this law is only intended to apply to for-profit media companies, not to everyone who engages in "journalistic activities." She also said that "citizen" doesn't only mean "citizen of Timor-Leste," so that non-citizens' rights will also be respected. We hope that the draft law is revised to make this unambiguous.

Update, 12 March: After receiving a 29-page report from Committee A on 11 March, the Parliamentary plenary voted unanimously to approve the law "in generality" but sent it back to the committee to come up with specific amendments.  See our web page for ongoing updates.