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Press groups fear criminal defamation law in Timor

International Journalists' Network - January 10, 2006

Journalists and freedom of expression advocates in East Timor are calling for international opposition to a new law that would punish defamation with jail time and unspecified fines.

The country's prime minister recently approved an executive decree that would criminalize defamation. Gill Silva Guterres, head of the Timor-Lorosa'e Journalists' Association (TLJA), told IJNet that it's now in the hands of East Timor President Xanana Gusmao.

The president must either veto the decree or sign it into law.

Guterres called upon colleagues at home and abroad to write to Gusmao's office and urge him to veto the decree.

The law would add criminal penalties for defamation, rather than treating it as a civil offense. It would allow courts to imprison convicted journalists for up to three years and fine them unspecified amounts.

Guterres said the law favors public officials and religious leaders and protects them from criticism. It offers little protection for reporting facts that may be construed as defamation, he said, adding that the sanctions would be a setback for the dream of a democratic East Timor.

"The chilling effect of this law will prevent people, particularly journalists to pursue the truth because of the three year's imprisonment as stipulated in this decree law," Guterres said.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) said the law would stifle the freedom of expression that the East Timorese people need to participate in their hard-won democracy. "The new laws will dissuade journalists from speaking up on good governance and transparency in the conduct of state affairs," SEAPA said in an alert.