The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) has urged Xanana Gusmao, President of Timor-Leste, to veto the criminal defamation provisions contained in the country's new Penal Code.
In a letter to President Gusmao, the group wrote "One of the foundations of a democratic society is the ability of its people to speak truth to power. If Timor-Leste's government tries to suppress such speech, we fear for the future of your democracy and for the future stability of your nation."
"ETAN joins international journalists groups, Timor-Leste journalist and legal associations, East Timorese Catholic clergy, the UN Secretary General, the US Secretary of State and others in urging East Timor's leaders to live up to their constitutional obligation to protect freedom of expression, not limit it," said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of ETAN. " The new nation can only benefit from robust political debate; the proposed defamation provisions will stifle discussion."
East Timor's truth commission (CAVR) has also recommended that defamation not be criminalized.
The proposed law would impose unlimited fines for those convicted of criminal defamation. Penalties for defamation through the media are greater, as are penalties (three years in prison) if those defamed are performing "public, religious or political duties." The truth of the statements would not necessarily serve as a defense. Legal analysts say that the penal code would grant greater protection to public officials than to others. Under current law, defamed individuals can sue for civil damages.
East Timor has ratified the major international human rights conventions which guarantee freedoms of speech and the press, incorporating these rights into East Timorese law.
Contact: John M. Miller, 718-596-7668; 917-690-4391 (cell)
2 February 2006
His Excellency Xanana Gusmco
President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
Palacio das Cinzas Dili, Timor-Leste
Dear Mr. President,
We are writing to share our thoughts on the proposed criminal defamation legislation in the Penal Code for Timor-Leste. As you know, this legislation has been approved by the Council of Ministers and is currently awaiting your action.
As long-time friends of the people and the nation of Timor-Leste, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) urges you not to sign this law. We are sending copies of this letter to the Prime Minister and other leaders of the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and we are also urging them not to enact it without your approval.
We celebrate and respect Timor-Leste's status as an independent nation, with the right to make your own decisions and mistakes. We have supported your people's struggle for self-determination for 15 years, and are usually reluctant to get involved in Timor-Leste's internal affairs. However, in this case we believe that our experience could help you make a wise decision. We will not repeat how the defamation law could stifle freedom of the press and political debate, or how it violates Timor-Leste's Constitution and international human rights treaties which have become part of Timor-Leste's laws. These arguments have been ably expressed by others, and we agree with them. We are also aware of the wide range of people who are urging you not to approve the defamation law – this is one of the rare times ETAN and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are in agreement.
We write to add a perspective from grassroots, civil society activists for peace and justice based on ETAN's experience campaigning against US policies which enabled killing and repression during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste.
Throughout the 1990s, ETAN received reports from yourself and others in the resistance about horrendous human rights violations committed by Indonesian forces against your people. We distributed that information as widely as possible – writing about it in the media, holding press conferences, circulating it among US government officials, and peacefully challenging Indonesian and US officials and others who supported or apologized for Indonesia's brutal oppression of your people and illegal occupation of your country.
To take one example, in September 1992, ETAN wrote a public letter to Senator Robert Kasten, a powerful Republican ally of President George H.W.
Bush and a leader of the pro-Indonesia faction in the Senate. We wrote, "We were disturbed to hear that you have been working to convince other Senators to restore IMET for Indonesia to the Foreign Aid Bill. We hope that you understand that such action feeds the perception that Senators represent lobbyists and not voters." On October 2, other Senators and Representatives rejected the Bush-Kasten position, and the US
Congress prohibited IMET training of Indonesian soldiers – the first limitation on US military assistance in 17 years of occupation. Opposition to Kasten's support for Jakarta was taken up by his electoral opponent Russell Feingold, who defeated Kasten a month later. Senator Feingold has since been one of Timor-Leste's strongest and most consistent supporters in Washington.
Fortunately, the United States has no criminal defamation law like the one contemplated for Timor-Leste. If it had, we could have been charged with defaming Senator Kasten – or, more likely, ETAN and other activists would have been intimidated from speaking out to support Timor-Leste in the first place. Our frequent and true assertion, usually bluntly stated, that the United States government was complicit in massive human rights crimes against Timor-Leste's people would have gone unsaid and unheard. The growing public pressure that by July 1998 led the US Senate to unanimously call for a referendum in Timor-Leste, and finally pushed President Clinton to endorse UNAMET and InterFET in 1999, might never have occurred.
One of the foundations of a democratic society is the ability of its people to speak truth to power. If Timor-Leste's government tries to suppress such speech, we fear for the future of your democracy and for the future stability of your nation.
Timor-Leste's independence and peace were achieved at great cost. We cannot remain silent while some of Timor-Leste's leaders endanger your hard-won accomplishments.
Peace and justice,
John M. Miller