The Timor-Leste government faces a stern test of its attitude towards press freedom when two journalists appear in court on Friday on charges of “slanderous denunctiation”.
The charges relate to a story published late last year in the Timor Post about the Prime Minister Rui Aria de Araújo and his former role as a finance ministry advisor in a state telecommunications tender.
The story contained an error, which was acknowledged and corrected as required under Timor-Leste’s press law.
But journalist Raimundos Oki, and a former editor of the Timor Post, Laurenco Martins, face up to three years’ jail if convicted.
A range of media freedom groups, including the International Federation of Journalists, have called for the charges to be dropped. They argue the charges amount to criminal defamation and will set a worrying precedent.
During a visit to Dili in May, I asked the Prime Minister about the charges during an interview that mostly dealt with the maritime boundary dispute with Australia and the Timorese economy.
In reply, de Araújo made one semi-valid point and one claim that is simply implausible.
The PM insisted he could not direct the State prosecutor to drop the proceedings – as suggested by international press organisations – because this would amount to the executive interfering in decisions taken by an independent legal office.
But de Araújo he also argued that he had sent details of the publication to the prosecutor as an ordinary Timorese citizen, not as the Prime Minister.
This last claim is nonsensical because, well, he is the Prime Minister.
Besides, his overall stance is contradictory. On one hand, de Araújo is arguing it would be improper to direct the prosecutor to drop the case, but on the other he reckons that it’s perfectly fine for the PM to lob a dossier complaining about a media report into the prosecutor’s in-tray.
The broader point is that the entire Timorese leadership – from Xanana Gusmao , Jose Ramos Horta, President Taur Matan Ruak and PM de Araújo – have to decide if they want their country to have a free and independent press.
If the answer is yes, they should address the Media Law that came into force in 2014.
The charges against the two journalists are under the Penal Code, but both pose threats to press freedom.
Here is a piece about press freedom in Timor-Leste for the Walkley magazine on August:
Here’s a link to a petition calling for the charges to be dropped:
Here’s a link to an article on regional press freedom by ABC journalist and Walkley trustee Michael Janda: