The supporters of criminalizing defamation argue the growing instances of leaders being cursed and abused on Facebook, with more than 400,000 users in a population of 1.3 million, is not “public debate."
Meanwhile those who disagree say that the proposed criminalization law is not good because it will limit freedom to express public opinion that has been protected by law.
On December 6, 2005, the Constitutional Government ratified the Criminal Law Act including in the decree-Law which defined defamation as a crime. This led to civil society protests to President Xanana Gusmão in January 2006.
In the IV Constitutional Government led by Prime Minister Xanana, raised "to action" including defamation into criminal law. Then on December 12, 2018 the General Prosecutor's Office of Timor-Leste used Indonesian Criminal Code to criminalize defamation, thereby targeting a journalist who reported on issues raised over a contract for uniforms for prison guard
At the same time, a draft criminal law on defamation was prepared by the IV Constitutional Government. But after being widely criticized by civil societies, finally in June 2009, the new Timor-Leste Penal Code did not include defamation as a crime.
The court tried former Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato in 2012 and she was convicted of corruption, and sentenced to 18 months jail. President Taur Matan Ruak pardoned her (giving clemency) in August 2014.
Even though the Criminal Code does not apply to defamation but there is still one verse "denuncia Calunioza" which presents a threat to the work of journalists. The Timor-Leste Prosecutor's Office investigated a Timor Post newspaper journalist after the Prosecutor's Office received a complaint from the leader of the Sixth Constitution (VI) Government.
The court tried and sentenced the reporter because of the news he wrote. After Government changes and changes in information technology became increasingly advanced, the campaign to criminalize defamation emerged again in the VIII Constitutional Government led by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak.
The President of the Press Council of Timor-Leste (CI or Consuelo de Impreza) Gil Guterres strongly disagrees with the criminalization campaign.
Guterres said by TL criminalizing defamation, the country lowered its self-esteem in the international world, and betrayed the Constitutional commitment to establish Timor-Leste as a law-based State.
He said, when the reason used to criminalize defamation was only because people cursed and insulted the leaders it was not true. The law was not only to protect the leaders or "Maun Bo’ot sira" or “Big Brother” but protect all citizens.
"If you curse and insult them in the" discurso de ódio "(hate speech) category we don't need new laws anymore. The law on "denúnsia Kalunioza" already exists.”. He said the criminalization of defamation would affect more journalists, where they were afraid to be critical or conduct investigative reports because of the threat of a prison sentence.
The consequences or impacts on society in general, Guterres said, would limit the desire of citizens to express their critical thoughts on the Government or power, and for citizens who had been jailed over defamation cases it would be difficult to find a job, let alone become a civil servant because of a criminal record.
The following is an exclusive interview with Gil Guterres (GG) by Tempo Timor reporter JTT:
JTT : What is defamation?
GG : Defamation is reducing people's fame. This behavior/action is intended to defame someone.
JTT: Do you think the criminalization of defamation should be allowed?
GG: For me, in Timor-Leste it is not only unnecessary, but indeed it cannot criminalize defamation. When we criminalize defamation, Timor-Leste itself humbles itself in the world, especially as a country that proclaims itself as a democratic state in this new millennium.
Timor-Leste also betrayed the constitutional commitment to establish a democratic state with the rule of law. As a democratic country it must not provide a place to criminalize opinions. Timor-Leste will also betray its international commitments that have been written into the Constitution Paragraph 9 "receção de Direito Internacional" (acceptance of International Law) as an internal legislative body. International human rights treaties and conventions that have been ratified by Timor-Leste through the National Parliament (which) give obligations to Timor-Leste as a party that will protect and develop human rights principles. One form of promotion is discriminating against defamation.
JTT: If Timor-Leste really criminalizes defamation, what danger will the media face and what is the danger to democracy?
GG: The consequences of criminalizing defamation will have a lot of impact for journalists. Journalists will be afraid to provide critical or do investigative reporting because they are threatened with imprisonment. Many media will use "looking safe" strategies to maintain their existence and not lose their responsibility as social control tools. Journalists and critical citizens will often go to prison for arguing in opposition to the holders of power (the rulers).
JTT: According to the authorities the community and the TL societies are now (often) cursing and insulting the rulers too much. What do you think?
GG: Invest in education. Formal education and civic education for citizens to be able to know ways to express their opinions and be legally and ethically acceptable. If we don't want our children to curse, teach them. Instead of closing their mouths or putting them in a cell.
Our leaders do not want to be insulted by people, meaning they must do good for the community. Must set an example. Fulfill their political promises. The reasons for creating laws to protect leaders or "maun bo’ot sira". If cursing and insulting is in the category of "discurso de ódio (hate speech), we do not need to make new laws.