Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: East Timor’s status declined from Free to Partly Free owing to the enactment of a new penal code that contains strict penalties for defamation as well as sustained official harassment of a major newspaper.
Although the 2002 constitution protects freedom of expression and media and guarantees that the state shall protect “the freedom and independence of the public mass media from political and economic powers,” Section 40 states that the right to freedom of speech and information “shall be regulated by law.” In September 2005, the Parliament voted to give the prime minister executive powers to enact a new penal code. On December 6, a government spokesman stated that the penal code, drafted by the Ministry of Justice and endorsed by the Council of Ministers, had been signed by the prime minister and would become law at the start of 2006. The new penal code includes sections on criminal defamation and contains severe penalties for defamation of public figures. Under Article 173, anyone can be jailed for up to three years and fined for publishing comments seen to be defamatory to public officials. The code sets no limits on fines or other penalties for defamation. As the 2007 national elections approach, there is concern that government officials will not be willing to tolerate news stories critical of their performance and that the new penal code will stifle debate and violate the right of citizens to be informed.
As Timorese journalists have practiced a more independent and critical brand of reporting since independence in 2002, there has been a rise in threats of defamation as well as a number of incidents in which government officials have harassed and otherwise tried to interfere with the press. In April, Suara Timor Lorosae, the oldest of East Timor’s four daily newspapers, received an eviction notice from the Land and Property Office stating that the government would not extend the paper’s use of the building. The action apparently stemmed from a report on famine deaths in remote villages and underscored long-running tensions between Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the newspaper, which is known for its critical reporting. The prime minister ordered all government departments to boycott the paper, withdrew all government advertising, and banned officials from giving statements to journalists from Suara Timor Lorosae. Fifty East Timorese journalists signed a petition as a result of the action, asserting that the prime minister’s restrictive actions violated constitutional provisions for press freedom.
A small number of privately owned daily and weekly newspapers publish in a variety of languages and provide some diversity of views. The Public Broadcast Service owns and operates a radio station that reaches most of the population, as well as a television station that has a limited geographic range. Radio remains the primary means of news dissemination, and 18 community radio stations are currently operating in addition to the state broadcaster. Internet access is unrestricted by the government but is not widely available (less than 0.1 percent of the population was able to access it in 2005). Lack of journalism training and education, high illiteracy, widespread poverty, and a poor communications infrastructure continue to hamper the development of professional media practices and standards.