Last October, veteran East Timor journalist José Antonio Belo used leaked mobile phone text messages to expose a corruption deal involving the country’s Justice Minister. Today, the journalist is facing a criminal defamation suit.
Writing for news magazine Tempo Semanal, Belo published details of alleged transactions between Justice Minister Lucia Lobato and several business associates for the rebuilding of a prison wall and the supply of prison guard uniforms. The contract was bagged by the minister’s husband. The value of the tenders was over $US1 million.
Below is a text message sent to the phone of the minister on the 7th of August 2008, at 12:25 from a certain JS:
“Sister, I have just finalized the plans for the project items and I see that the price I informed you of today is enough because this fence is 10 meters high and very thick without using blocks but only cement fill (cement, rock and double layer of steel) International quality. The works are the same as for the USA embassy fence only that theirs is only 3 meters high and not very thick.”
At 12:30:10, the minister replied:
“Good, I will look at it later.”
It may appear to be a normal text conversation but it was only on the 25th of August 2008 that the Ministry of Finance began to advertise for the project bidding to construct a new fence for a prison.
Minister Lobato complained that her privacy was violated. The journalist argued that he wrote only about the minister’s activities as a public official, not her private activities. The prosecution has decided to charge the journalist with a criminal defamation suit. If proven guilty, Belo could spend six years in jail.
Several groups and individuals have expressed support for the journalist. Pacific Freedom Forum links to a post from Cafe Pacific which asserted that the suit will create a “chilling effect on freedoms of speech in East Timor and the region’s youngest media.” The groups adds:
The “region’s youngest media” has only one national television station and a few radio stations. Only 0.1 percent of the population has internet access which makes news magazines like Tempo Semanal (Belo’s paper) the major source of information in the country.
For the government of East Timor to hide behind the same colonial laws used by Indonesia to suppress and intimidate genuine efforts towards democracy ignores blood sacrifice by thousands of their own citizens in support of freedom.
La’o Hamutuk, a civil society organization, said the accusation against the journalist
creates an ugly picture which can kill freedom of an independent and impartial press. The media will be afraid to circulate clear and accurate information when they know that such information will bring down threats against them.
Instead of punishing the journalist, the group wants the government to probe the alleged corruption dealing of the minister:
The information published in Tempo Semanal is evidence that the Prosecutor General should use to open an investigation about alleged corruption in the Ministry of Justice. But in reality, the Prosecutor is investigating Jose Belo, accusing him of defamation. La’o Hamutuk sees this reversal as criminalization of a free press which provides true and factual information to the public.
Carmel Budiardjo of TAPOL, a human rights paper, is disappointed that the same law used by Indonesians to suppress freedom in the country is now being used against Belo, a staunch defender of press freedom:
We are well acquainted with the courage of Jose Belo during the more than two decades of the Indonesian occupation and are aghast that a law introduced by the Indonesians is now being used to stifle the legitimate activities of the press in a country that claims to be a democracy. Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato should withdraw the charges in recognition of the principle of the freedom of the press. Timorese journalists should not live in fear of charges that could land them in prison simply because they have done what any journalist would be expected to do when they find evidence of alleged corruption by a member of the government.
There is an online petition asking the East Timor government to stop harassing Belo.