Anything concerning the Catholic Church is extremely sensitive in Timor-Leste, as Raimundos Oki, the editor of The Oekusi Post website can confirm, reports the Paris-based global media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Oki is facing a possible six-year jail sentence under article 291 of the penal code after being questioned about his coverage of the case by the Criminal Investigation Scientific Police in the capital Dili on June 30.
"The story that Raimundos Oki covered is so sensitive that the justice system cannot suddenly accuse him of violating judicial confidentiality without taking account of broader public interest concerns," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk.
"It is perfectly healthy in a mature democracy for a journalist to question how a judicial investigation is conducted. We therefore ask justice minister Tiago Amaral Sarmento to order the withdrawal of the charges against Raimundos Oki."
The article that Oki published in The Oekusi Post in June 2021 revealed that 30 girls under the age of 18 had been detained on a prosecutor's orders a year earlier in Oecusse, a western exclave of Timor-Leste, and had been subjected to forced vaginal examinations. One of the girls subsequently died from a vaginal infection.
Sensitive case against priest
The examinations were ordered with the aim of getting more evidence against Richard Daschbach, an American missionary priest who was finally convicted in December 2021 of raping at least four girls.
This now defrocked priest, who had run Topu Honis orphanage since its creation in 1991, was a long-standing supporter of Timor's independence and had many high-level connections in both political and Catholic Church circles – connections that made the paedophilia case against him even more sensitive.
Oki's story revealed that some of the girls were detained by the prosecutor and police and subjected to forced genital examinations although they had denied having been sexually assaulted by Daschbach.
Oki, who is himself from Oecusse, told RSF he had wanted to draw attention to the lasting and irreversible trauma that had been inflicted on the girls he interviewed.
"No journalist had talked to the victims of these virginity tests," he said.
"If the priest is found guilty, let him go to prison. But it is my duty as a journalist to publish this public interest story. I refuse to allow these young girls, who have been the victims of sexual abuse, real human rights violations, to be forgotten."
Two years ago, RSF criticised a proposed law in Timor-Leste under which anyone "offending the honour and prestige" of a representative of the state or church would face up to three years in prison.
Timor-Leste was ranked 17th out of 180 countries in the 2022 RSF World Press Freedom Index, and is now higher than any Pacific Island nation.
[Pacific Media Watch collaborates with Reporters Without Borders.]