Monday, February 16, 2009

East Timor presses charges against Jose Belo

East Timorese journalist Jose Antonio Belo has returned home from Australia where he was seeking support against an upcoming prosecution over his attempts to expose official corruption. Belo is the editor and founder of popular Timorese weekly newspaper Tempo Semanal. He is facing a six year jail sentence after being charged with criminal defamation. Last year Belo wrote an article that suggested Justice Minister Lucia Lobato had improperly awarded government contracts to friends and business contacts. The article was based on text messages the newspaper had received which suggested corrupt dealings by the government minister.

While the trial date has not been set, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) called on East Timor’s prosecutor-general to drop the criminal defamation charges against the paper and its editor. On 26 January, John M. Miller, ETAN’s National Coordinator said neither should have to face charges under an “obsolete and repressive law”. Timor’s repressive defamation laws were inherited from its old Indonesian masters. ETAN says the Timorese government had proposed decriminalising defamation under a new penal code. However the new code has not yet been enacted, although drafted several years ago. He now urges the state to drop the charges. “Rather than attack the messenger,” he said, “Timor-Leste's leadership should support freedom of expression and encourage a dynamic, investigative media”.

Tempo Semanal published the offending article entitled “SMS texts evidence: Minister for Justice Gives Herself And Friends Projects” on 12 October 2008. In it, Tempo claimed they had received SMS texts which were exchanged by the Minister for Justice Lucia Lobato and Timorese and international businessmen. The text messages were discussions for a tender to construct a new fence for the Becora prison, the acquisition of uniforms for prison officers, and the design, issuance and management of national identity documentation. The issue was that the million dollar discussions took place before these projects were sent out for public tender.

The minister argued Belo violated her privacy and journalists’ ethical code by publishing the text messages. The government served notice to Belo in December he was facing defamation charges. However the Office of the Prosecutor-General refused to give Tempo Semanal a copy of the charges claiming the relevant documents were confidential. On 19 January, the prosecutor’s office questioned him for three hours. Belo said he does not any money or any resources to fight the charges. “So we can't fight a person who has influence [and] who has money,” he said. “I presume it is very, very difficult to win this case in the court."

This is not the first time Belo has faced imprisonment. He was a member of the clandestine resistance movement against Indonesian rule and was arrested in 1995, aged 23, after being involved in a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of independence leader Xanana Gusmao. Belo spent the next 18 months in jail. Afterwards he fled to the mountains to join the guerrilla fighters. He was captured in 1997 and spent more time in jail. He was released before the 1999 referendum that voted for independence and he went on to report the subsequent Indonesian massacres.

Since then he has worked as a freelance correspondent and cameraman with Associated Press, the ABC, SBS and Channel Seven. In 2006, he founded Tempo Semanal with $500 of his own money, a $1000 donation and one computer. For the first six months, his staff worked without pay. But its circulation grew rapidly and he now employs 20 staff. Belo accuses the government of not genuinely wanting freedom of speech in East Timor. “They don't want the journalists to do some hard stories, that's why they go after me.” he told ABC’s PM this evening. “And if they get me then other journalists are not going to be brave to do the hard stories.”

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