By Sirwan Kajjo in Dili
In a deeply Catholic country, accusations that an American priest abused dozens of children at an orphanage stunned many in East Timor.
So when independent journalist Raimundos Oki heard that a group of girls planned to sue authorities, claiming they had been subjected to unnecessary virginity tests as part of the criminal case, he knew he had to hear their story.
Oki published interviews with the girls on his news website, Oekusi Post, ahead of the trial of Richard Daschbach. The then 84-year-old American priest was jailed in December for 12 years for child abuse.
But now Oki is under investigation himself, on accusations that he breached judicial secrecy.
The case is unexpected in East Timor. Also known as Timor-Leste, the country has one of the better records globally for press freedom.
Groups including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch, however, note that the risk of legal proceedings and a media law with vague provisions that journalists “promote public interest and democratic order” could encourage self-censorship on some subjects, including accusations of abuse in the Catholic Church.
Call from police
Oki learned that he was under investigation when police called on June 29, ordering the journalist to report to a police station in Dili, the capital, the following day.
At the station, police informed Oki that the public prosecutor’s office had ordered an investigation into the journalist for allegedly “violating the secrets of the legal system.”
The investigation is connected to the reports Oki published in 2020 about a planned lawsuit against authorities. In it, the claimants alleged authorities subjected them to virginity tests while investigating claims of abuse against the priest.
In their lawsuit and in interviews with Oki, the claimants said they had told authorities they were not among the minors abused by the priest, but that authorities still forced them to undergo the invasive procedure.
“They wanted to share what they went through with the public,” Oki said. “As a journalist, it is my duty to share their stories with the world.”
At the time that his articles were published, the priest was still on trial. Oki said a police officer told him the judicial secrecy accusation was linked to Daschbach’s trial.
Authorities have not responded publicly to the lawsuit, which was filed in July 2021.
The public prosecutor’s office in Dili didn’t respond to VOA’s request for comment.
If convicted, Oki could face up to six years in prison.
Both the journalist and his lawyer, Miguel Faria — who also defended Daschbach in his trial — deny that Oki breached judicial secrecy, citing public interest as a justification for publishing the interviews.
“Cases of forced virginity tests are considered public interest, and it is very important for the public to know what happened to these victims,” Faria said.
The lawyer said that in this case, “the victims speak firsthand about their experiences”.
Judicial secrecy laws are often enforced to ensure the right to a fair trial or to prevent the risk of a jury being influenced by reporting. UNICEF and others also have guidelines for coverage of child abuse and trials to prevent minors being identified or retraumatised.
Rick Edmonds, a media analyst at the Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said that in some countries, interviewing witnesses during or even shortly before a trial takes place can jeopardise the trial or provide grounds for appeal if the jury was not entirely sequestered.
Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director at RSF, said that prosecutors should consider some legal arguments, including that the girls’ testimonies were published during Daschbach’s trial.
But, he said, “from a press freedom point of view, we need to look at the bigger picture on this issue and think about the public interest.
“I think the very key in this case is the idea of public interest. In a functional democracy, there can be some debate between the necessity of judicial secrecy and the need for the public to know exactly what is at stake,” Bastard told VOA.
Showing the suffering
Oki said his objective was to show the suffering the girls went through. At the time, he said, the media focus was the trial of the priest and not the experiences of minors, who say they went through unnecessary procedures while the case was investigated.
“Forced virginity test is a violation of basic human rights,” he said. “This practice is against every international norm of human rights.”
The reporter said authorities didn’t need to carry out such tests to build a case against the former priest.
The United Nations has called for so-called virginity tests to be banned, saying the procedure is both unscientific and “a violation of human rights.”
Parker Novak, a Washington-based expert on East Timor, believes Oki’s case is controversial because it touches on the role of the church in the Timorese society.
“There is a reluctance in the Timorese media, in the Timorese society, to report critically on influential institutions and leaders,” he told VOA.
The Catholic Church is arguably the most influential institution in the Timorese society, he said.
“So certainly, any reporting that can be perceived as critical of the church, even if that reporting is wholly justified, whereas this case probably was, it’s still seen as taboo within the Timorese society, and that’s what causes controversy,” Novak added.
East Timor is said to contain the highest percentage of Catholics outside Vatican City, and the priest, Daschbach, was a revered figure in the community who had the support of former President Xanana Gusmao, who attended the sentencing.
The Associated Press reported that Daschbach’s trial was closed to the public and that some witnesses complained of being threatened.
A US federal grand jury in Washington later indicted the priest for illicit sexual contact in a foreign place and wire fraud.
Oki has faced legal action previously for his reporting. In 2017, the journalist was accused of criminal defamation over a 2015 article published in the Timor Post about then-Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo.
Charges in that case were later dropped, but Oki believes the case against him this time is more complicated.
“If they want to politicise it, then I believe they will imprison me,” Oki said.
“However, if they look at the story, which was published last year along with several videos, they will see that there is no wrongdoing.”