The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has led an alliance of journalists, press unions and media organisations from across the world in condemning the proposed media laws expected to be legislated in East Timor this month. SBS TV’s Mark Davis; international journalist and Filmmaker John Pilger; veteran international correspondent George Negus; The New York Times’ Declan Walsh; Seven Network’s Chris Bath and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Ruth Pollard are among a list of 48 respected Australian and international journalists and media identities who have penned a letter and petition delivered to East Timor’s government yesterday protesting its new press law. A wider petition of 245 signatures including journalists around the world, as well as a number of letters calling on the government to refrain from signing off on the laws was also presented.
The IFJ with support from journalists and unions around the world has written to the President of East Timor Tuar Matan Ruak calling to reject the proposed media laws.
The petitions were delivered by Jose Belo, president of East Timor’s newest media union the East Timor Press Union (TLPU) to East Timor’s President Taur Matan Ruak, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, Speaker of the Parliament Vicente Guterres, Secretary of State for Media Nelio Issac Sarmento, Head of Fretilin Bench in Parliament Aniceto Guterres, Head of CNRT Bench in Parliament Natalino Dos Santos, Head of PD Bench in Parliament Lourdes Bessa and Bishop Baucau, Mgr. Basilio do Nascrimento, Bishop Dili, Mgr. Alberto Ricardo and Bishop Maliana, Mgr. Norberto da Costa.
The press laws, which were approved in their draft form in August 2013 have received widespread criticism, both national and internationally, as they are more in line with protecting political interests and restricts media rights and press freedom. In a previous statement, the IFJ joined its affiliate the Timor Lorosa’e Journalists Association (TLJA) calling on the President of East Timor to refrain from signing off on the laws following the ruling by the East Timor Court of Appeal that sections of the law were unconstitutional.
The IFJ petition noted that the laws were “incompatible with the basic principles of freedom of expression, the practical workings of a free media and the needs of a modern democracy.”
IFJ’s Asia Pacific affiliates the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA), Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists (CAPJ), Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement (FMM), Indian Journalists Union (IJU), Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJM), National Union of Journalists Nepal (NUJ) and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) also petitioned the government. Letters of support for the petition were also received from UK-based peace and democracy group Tapol, the National Union of Journalists, UK (NUJ), the Nederlandse Vereniging van Journalisten (Dutch Association of Journalists) and Norsk Journalistlag (Norwegian Union of Journalists). International journalists also formed a petition that was submitted alongside the Australian petition.
Jose Belo, President of the TLPU said “We TLPU are very happy with the IFJ organised petition. We are grateful of your effort. We thought we were alone but with the solidarity of Timor-Leste old journalist friends, we believe we will make some impact.”
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Federal Secretary Chris Warren said “Australian journalists and media organisations have given strong support to Timor Leste. It is disappointing to see their efforts undermined by proposed laws that aim to muzzle the media and deny legitimate reporting of issues crucial to the development of a democratic state.”
Mark Davis from SBS TV said the laws were: “A shopping list of fines, crimes, penalties and restrictions. The risks will be too high for any sane journalist or business to venture into print or online publishing. What is currently a very lively and open media environment will be flicked into the darkness within a year.”
Shirley Shackleton, the widow of Australian journalist Greg Shackleton, who was killed by Indonesian forces in Balibo, East Timor, in 1975, also joined the petition saying: “A free media should be important for everyone. Tens of thousands of Timorese were robbed of their lives in the cause of freedom. Australians have not been put to test thus far, but the way to lose our freedoms is to ignore the reality.”
The IFJ Acting Director, Jane Worthington echoed these comments saying “These unacceptable laws threaten East Timor’s democracy and show the Government’s attempts to limit the ability of journalists to report freely. The media has long played an integral role in East Timor’s struggle for independence. This should not be forgotten or compromised.”
Other petition comments:
Sophie McNeill from ABC TV: “Jose Belo and other East Timorese journalists risked their lives in order to tell the truth of their people. They now deserve to be supported in their profession by the East Timorese government, not persecuted.”
Ian Chandler from the United Kingdom: “Because I have visited Timor when it was under Portuguese control and have followed the struggle against the evil Indonesians – and would hate to see curbs on a free press there”
Australian journalist Richard Cheswick: “Journalists in Australia, including me, were both supporters and publicists for the East Timorese Independence movement from before the Indonesian invasion. It saddens me that the Timorese Parliament proposes a law which would constrain local journalists from going about their business.”
John Miller, from the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network: “During Indonesia’s occupation, journalists had to defy Indonesia’s restrictions on reporting. It would be a betrayal if reporters and others in independent Timor-Leste were forced to defy government restrictions to report on current issues.”