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Timor-Leste’s law guarantees press freedom, Don’t force journalists to reveal their source

Ex Director of Tempo Timor , Jose Antonio Belo and Lusa Journalist Antonio Sampaio on Dili Court (26/01). Ex Director of Tempo Timor , Jose Antonio Belo and Lusa Journalist Antonio Sampaio on Dili Court (26/01). Photo suply

The court in Timor-Leste has subpoenaed news platform Tempo Timor to appear before the judges on 26 January 2022. The reason: a few articles Tempo Timor published in 2020 about a report written by the Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), which falls under the Metropolitan Archdiocese. Currently the former JPC-director, priest Hermínio de Fátima Gonçalves, is on trial. He is accused of violating the secrecy of justice law[i] by digging into an active criminal investigation, chasing witnesses, writing down his findings in a report dated 7 September 2020 and sharing that document with others, inside and outside the church structure. Tempo Timor didn’t violate any law, but just did its duty by reporting on the JPC-report.

The case against R.D.

Why did Father Hermínio embark on his mission as JPC-director? This is all related to the criminal case against R.D., an American who was being investigated at the time by the Timorese police and prosecution as he was accused of sexually abusing underage girls when he was a priest, running Topu Honis Shelter Home, which he had set up in Oecusse, the enclave of Timor-Leste. Back in November 2018 the Vatican had already found R.D. guilty and had defrocked him. He was also dismissed by his SVD congregation as a member.

JPC and Xanana in Oecusse

In August 2020 the public prosecution in Timor-Leste was finalising the investigations against R.D. and was formulating the charges. These were submitted to the court in September 2020. However, Father Hermínio was convinced of R.D.’s innocence and compared his case to that of Cardinal Pell who had been acquitted by the Australian court. Father Hermínio wanted to prove that the official investigations in Timor-Leste against R.D. were flawed. On 27 August 2020 he travelled with a delegation of JPC staff members and volunteers to Oecusse. On 28 and 29 August 2020 they were in Topu Honis and other places in the enclave. On 29 August 2020 CNRT-leader Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão was in the shelter as well.

Going after witnesses

The Justice and Peace Commission went to children and families questioning them about the investigations by the public prosecutor and police, and interviewed several professionals in Timor-Leste. On 7 September 2020 the commission finished its report, writing the names of 19 potential victims, harming their privacy and endangering their safety. The commission falsely stated that seven children were ‘missing’ and exposed their names as well. The JPC-report also accused the police, prosecution, lawyers, health workers, NGO’s and the commissioner for children’s rights of ‘organized crime’, ‘child exploitation’, ‘human trafficking’ and being a ‘Justice Mafia.’

When the Archbishop learned about the report, he dismissed Father Hermínio from his position as JPC-director, apologized to the public authorities and others involved, and offered support to the victims of R.D.’s sexual abuse.

Tempo Timor

Tempo Timor saw and read the JPC-report, which is signed by Father Hermínio and, by the way, is not marked confidential. Subsequently Tempo Timor wrote about the report, summarizing the content without revealing anything about the official investigations by the police or prosecution. In one of Tempo Timor’s articles, legal expert Manuel Tilman stated: ‘The commission is violating the penal code.’ By publishing the names of people who gave testimony to the police and prosecution, the JPC broke the law. https://tempotimor.com/en/3497-church-commission-violates-the-law-in-sexual-abuse-case Tilman said: ‘Now it depends on the public prosecutor whether he is brave enough to start to prosecute the Justice and Peace commission.’

On trial

That is what happened. The prosecution officially charged the priest, who is now on trial. Father Hermínio is accused of violating the law on judicial secrecy as he started researching a criminal case while it was still under investigation. Ordinary citizens don’t have the right to chase those who testified to the police and judicial authorities, to check what evidence witnesses possibly gave and how evidence was collected. But that’s what Father Hermínio and his delegation did, as can be read in the JPC-report which describes the commission’s actions. On top of that the priest wrote down his findings in a report, which was distributed among people.

Shifting attention

Some people including Mr. Xanana Gusmão, who is a staunch defender of R.D., have been supporting Father Hermínio. Mr. Gusmão appeared as defence witness in his court-case, as Father Hermínio had shared a copy of the report with the political leader. Meanwhile Mr. Gusmão has tried to shift the attention away from the alleged offenses by Father Hermínio, by questioning those who support the victims as well as the media that published articles about the JPC-report.

Principles and ethics

Meanwhile the judges decided to call Tempo Timor to appear in court. It’s good to note that Tempo Timor did nothing wrong. Tempo Timor did not break any law. Tempo Timor just did its job by publishing articles about a shocking report that actually was not even marked as confidential. Who gave us the report? Even though one source said he gave the JPC-report to several journalists, as a matter of principle and professional ethics Tempo Timor will not reveal its sources.

Press freedom

Timor-Leste should be proud to be one of the best examples of press freedom in the region. The Timorese constitution guarantees the freedom of the press (Article 41). This includes: access to information sources, editorial freedom, protection of independence and professional secrecy. Journalists should not be called to court to testify about their work, which is: informing the public about what’s happening in the country. This also includes reporting about a Justice and Peace Commission which interferes with criminal investigations, harms the safety of potential witnesses, and falsely accuses state institutions, lawyers, health workers and NGO’s working for justice.

Sources

Journalists should not be called to court to disclose their sources. The law protects the work of journalists, who have the right to professional secrecy and cannot be obliged to reveal their sources of information, as expressed in the Civil Code (Article 548), Criminal Procedure Code (Article 126) and the Media Law (Article 19). Journalists have the right, the professional and ethical duty to protect their sources. This is one of the cornerstones of press freedom and an essential instrument to guarantee that society is well informed. That’s how journalists can report on, for instance, corruption cases. Sources need to feel secure when they inform the media. Each time the court calls journalists to ask about their sources, the media are in fact put on trial. This sets the wrong example. This gives the wrong signal to journalists, who can see this as a warning not to get involved in investigative reporting about the powerful. We call on the authorities in Timor-Leste to be proud of our laws and strengthen the guarantees for press freedom.

Guilty of sexual abuse

While Father Hermínio supported his former confrère R.D. and allegedly violated the law, the judges supported justice. On 21 December 2021 the Timor-Leste court found R.D. guilty of sexual abuse of underage girls, and sentenced him to twelve years in prison for abusing 4 children when they were below 12 years old. He is the first in the country to be convicted for sexually abusing minors in his capacity as a priest. As a convicted criminal he now stays in the Becora jail in Dili. It has been reported that R.D.’s defence lawyers have submitted an appeal requesting an acquittal.

 Artigo 291º

Violação do segredo de justiça

  1. Quem, em violação de determinação legal e sem justa

causa, tornar público o teor de acto processual penal

abrangido pelo segredo de justiça ou relativamente ao qual

tenha sido decidido excluir a publicidade, é punido com

pena de prisão de 1 a 4 anos.

  1. Se a violação for concretizada por meio de órgão de  comunicação social a penal é de 2 a 6 anos de prisão.  
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Last modified on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 16:10
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