Timor-Leste journalists facing jail for defamation over PM criticism

Former Timor Post editor Lourenco Martins (from left), reporter Oki Raimundos, and a lawyer earlier in the judicial process. Image: Jim Nolan/IFJ

Pacific Media Watch News Desk

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has joined its affiliates Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and the South East Asia Journalist Unions (SEAJU) in strongly condemning the latest development in the slanderous denunciation case against Timor-Leste journalists Oki Raimundos and Lourenco Martins, reports the IFJ Asia-Pacific bureau.

The IFJ, MEAA and SEAJU have called for the charges to be immediately withdrawn.

The lead prosecutor in the case against Oki Raimundos and Lourenco Martins yesterday put forward the final allegations in the case calling for Oki to be jailed for one year and Martins to be jailed for one year with a further two years suspended sentence.

The court will deliver the verdict on June 1 in Dili, Timor Leste.

READ MORE: Timor-Leste PM presses defamation case against editor

The allegations against Oki and Martins stem from an article authored by Oki and published by the Timor Post – when Martins was the editor-in-chief — in November 2016 which referred to the now Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, Rui Maria de Araujo, in his previous role as adviser to the Minister for Finance.

According to the article published on November 10, Araujo, recommended the winning bid for a project to supply and install computer equipment to the new Ministry of Finance building in 2014.

As outlined under the Press Law, Article 34, the right of reply is guaranteed. As such, the Timor Post published the Prime Minister’s reply to the article on the paper’s front page on 17 November 2015.

The Timor Post then published a clarification of Oki’s report in its 18 November 2015 issue.

On April 11, 2016, the Timor-Leste prosecutor began an investigation into the report, after a “slanderous denunciation” lawsuit was filed by the Prime Minister.

The interview was the first step in the process of a decision whether to lay charges against the journalists under the Timorese criminal code.

The IFJ, South East Asian Journalist Unions (SEAJU), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the charges to be dropped. However, he responded to the letter saying: “I will not trade press freedom and freedom of expression with ‘press irresponsibility’ and ‘irresponsible freedom of expression’”.

The IFJ and MEAA have advocated on behalf of Oki and Martins to have the charges against them withdrawn throughout the process. Both Oki and Martins have been banned from leaving Timor-Leste without prior permission from the prosecutor.

In 2017, Oki was named as one of the recipients of the Balibo Five-Roger East Fellowship recipients.

Young Timorese journalists interview former prime minister Jose Ramos-Horta at the World Press Freedom Day conference on May 3 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image: David Robie/PMC

Australian barrister and IFJ legal adviser Jim Nolan said: “If the two are convicted this will represent a significant stain on the reputation of democratic East Timor. The case is all the more grave as it involves an article which attacked the Prime Minister.

“The charges have been instituted at his behest. Any decision will also be an encouragement to authoritarian governments in the region which has been marked by increasing attacks upon the press.

“Until these charges emerged, Timor-Leste was one of the few remaining democracies in the region which enjoyed a free press and where journalists could pursue their craft free from the threat of state prosecution.”

Jose Belo, former president of the Timor-Leste Press Union (TLPU), said: “The prosecutor’s announcement yesterday is a worry for press freedom in Timor-Leste, and puts the press under threat.

“The leaders, the government of Timor-Leste are using the laws that they themselves produced to oppress the media. When Oki and Lourenco from the Timor Post, go to jail, that’s the beginning of a new era of the country’s leaders killing the free press. We really hope IFJ and journalist friends around the world will help us fight this battle.”

MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy said: “This legal assault on an individual journalist is an outrageous over-reach. It uses a draconian law to keep pursuing a journalist long after an error has been acknowledged and the record corrected.

“This law has been condemned by MEAA and many other press freedom groups around the world because it allows the government to pursue, intimidate and silence journalists.”

SEAJU said: “SEAJU regrets that East Timor, a country born from a long struggle for freedom, should now suppress one of the most essential freedoms, that of expression, and jump aboard the bandwagon of worsening repression of the press in Southeast Asia.”

The IFJ said: “We stand with our colleagues in Timor-Leste in deploring this campaign against them led by the Prime Minister. Slanderous denunciation or criminal defamation by any other name is a brutal attack on press freedom and an attempt to silence critical voices.”

#FreeTimorJournalists petition here.


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