Freedom of the Press
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East Timor’s Parliament passed a new Media Act in May 2014, but criticism from prominent Timorese journalists, human rights activists, and the international media development community prompted a constitutional review, and the measure was returned to Parliament for revision. The final version enacted in November retained a number of problematic provisions, though its effects on media independence remained to be seen at year’s end.
Freedom of the press and expression are protected under Articles 40 and 41 of the constitution. However, as the Timor Leste Journalist Association (AJTL) has noted, “the absence of a press law for Timor Leste has led to the use of the penal code to settle disputes in media reporting, which can endanger press freedom.” Although the 2009 penal code decriminalized defamation, misuse of Article 285, which covers “slanderous denunciation,” still threatens journalists. Where domestic laws did not exist, the 1999 Indonesian Press Law governed media issues.
To address this legal gap, Parliament approved the Media Act in May 2014. President Taur Matan Ruak sent the law to the Court of Appeal in July for a constitutional review, as the AJTL and international press freedom advocates objected to many of its provisions. The court rejected a handful of articles, mostly pertaining to the applicability of fines for violations, and Parliament amended them before approving the final version in October. The president signed the law the following month, and it took effect in late December.
Despite the revisions, many of the elements that had drawn criticism remained in the legislation. For example, the law creates an official Press Council, described as a government-funded “independent administrative entity” with the power to “grant, renew, suspend, and revoke” journalists’ credentials under a new licensing system, and to impose a code of ethics for the profession. Prospective journalists are required to complete training periods of six to 18 months, depending on their prior education. The Press Council also has authority over the registration and accreditation of foreign correspondents in the country. Of the council’s five members, two are elected by journalists, one by media outlets, and two by Parliament. In addition, the Media Act lists a series of vague “duties” and “functions” of the media, including the obligation to “promote the national culture,” “encourage and support high-quality economic policies and services,” and “promote peace and social stability, harmony and national solidarity.”
The Media Act acknowledges in general terms a right to public information, which had only been nominally established in Section 40 of the constitution. However, the law offers no details on government obligations or enforcement. Journalists in the country frequently report problems with access to information, as the process lacks established mechanisms, depends on scarce resources, and is often arbitrarily blocked by the government.
While most public officials pay lip service to freedom of the press, not all are comfortable with its actual practice, and there is a sense among many—including some international advisers—that journalism should ideally be linked with the process of nation-building.
A culture of deference and respect for hierarchy continues to pervade journalism in East Timor, and news content often features verbatim accounts recorded during organized press conferences, which journalists are frequently paid to attend. The local nongovernmental organization La’o Hamutuk reported that soon after Parliament approved the Media Act for the first time in May, the secretary of state for media invited media organizations to sign agreements to receive subsidies from the government, creating the appearance that they were being paid to acquiesce to the new law. Tempo Semanal and the Timor-Leste Press Union refused, but other media groups were set to receive $5,000 to $20,000 each.
Journalists are generally able to cover the news freely in terms of physical access, and they are rarely subject to harassment or assaults.
A handful of daily and weekly newspapers operate on a regular schedule in Dili, and several more appear sporadically. Circulations are very small and are hampered by the high price of papers relative to low consumer purchasing power, illiteracy, and a lack of distribution outside the capital.
After the country gained independence in 2002, broadcast media became dominated by public radio and television outlets, but community radio stations—many with international funding—also play an important role in the media landscape. According to the most recent estimates, there are approximately 20 community radio stations across the country, along with one national and three commercial stations. There is one national and one private television station. However, technical difficulties limit the reach of many broadcast media outlets in rural areas, leaving some residents without access to any media.
Internet access was limited to just over 1 percent of the population in 2014 due to poverty and inadequate infrastructure. More households have mobile phones, and they are becoming an important communication tool, especially in Dili, where nearly every home has access to at least one device.
The presence of internationally funded media-assistance organizations has had mixed effects on journalism in East Timor. These organizations have made significant financial contributions, thereby decreasing the importance of funding from the state and arguably increasing journalistic independence. At the same time, evidence suggests that they have contributed to what some Timorese journalists call a “project mentality,” in which news organizations become excessively dependent on grants from nonstate actors.
The new Media Law requires outlets to disclose their owners and limits foreign ownership in Timorese media organizations to 30 percent stakes. The Court of Appeal’s review of the legislation had raised objections to the foreign ownership cap, but it was nevertheless included in the final bill.