COVID-19 Op-ed

Interrogating the Level of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Timor-Leste in the Time of Covid-19

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Joanico AlvesStudent, Asia
Pacific MA Human Rights and Democratisation
Global Campus
of Human Rights Asia Pacific
Institute of Human Rights
and Peace Studies, Mahidol University

The full enjoyment of freedom of expression and access to
information is key to ensuring people’s participation and government’s
accountability in the fight against Covid-19. People need to express their
voices to inform the governments about their condition and concerns.
Therefore, people need to have access to evidence-based information about the
Coronavirus pandemic as well as spaces and opportunities to quickly express
what they see, what they think, and what they need in light of the crisis.
Although these rights are fundamental, in crisis, they could be limited or
controlled by politicians. Journalists are crucial defenders often in the
front lines to uphold the freedom of expression and keep people and
government informed during the Coronavirus pandemic. Although they are
essential to help the people and the government to combat the Coronavirus
pandemic, they are also vulnerable to different kinds of risks of little
social protection, no economic support, and threats of physical violence.Many
journalists work actively without masks, gloves, personal protective
equipment, and poor salaries (Oekusi Post, 16 April 2020). In Timor-Leste,
many earn only the minimum wage per month of USD $150. According to some
journalists from the Timor Post, journalists depend on institutions or civil
groups to provide essential goods, such as rice, water, noodles, and soap,
during a crisis. They also have to provide their own masks. In addition, they
might not be able to access, correct, or update information and data if the
government fails to provide them communication support and transparency. The
Association of Timor-Leste Journalists and the Timor-Leste Press Union asked
the Ministry of Health to provide clear information to the media. As a
result, they requested that the government should cooperate with journalists
and open space to ask questions regarding the Coronavirus pandemic (GMN TV,
March 2020). Journalists could also easily face threats of physical
violence.Recently, Timorese citizens abroad have not been allowed to enter
Timor-Leste due to the lockdown. On 23 April 2020, six students who study in
Indonesia illegally returned, and the Timorese government quarantined them at
Mota-ain, on the Timor-Leste border with Indonesia. When one journalist tried
to get information from them, suddenly, two female students attacked the
journalist because they did not want to be exposed (RTTL, April 2020).Freedom
of expression along with the right to access information are fundamental
rights of everyone, though they could be limited in a health emergency.
Timor-Leste Constitution Article 41(a)(2) says that “Freedom of the press
shall comprise, namely, the freedom of speech and creativity for journalists,
the access to information sources, editorial freedom, protection of
independence and professional confidentiality, and the right to create
newspapers, publications and other means of broadcasting”. UDHR 1948 Article
19 emphasizes the right to freedom of expression on media and other platforms
as well as other forms of communications (Constitution RDTL, 2002; UDHR,
1948). Journalists should have the right to access information sources
without facing any violence. In a time of crisis, their jobs are especially
significant to inform civilian directives, data, and related information from
the government and other sectors. Journalists monitor the government’s
preparedness and response to the crisis and facilitate opinion exchange and
formation of public debate and discourse, especially when politicians cover
up the cases of human rights violations and failures of flattening the
curve.One of the important things about information about the disease and the
progress of the government response is that people can know how to protect
themselves while monitoring government practice in fighting Covid-19 on the
media. Failures to gain information could further lead to contagion and more
casualties. However, access to information could be given in times of crisis,
at the cost of limiting freedom of expression. In many Southeast Asian
countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines,
governments are implementing policies and laws to purge people for spreading
false information, which raised the concerns that politicians might use this
as opportunities to silence dissent. Timor-Leste did not create fake news
laws, and it is relatively open to criticism and dissent. Instead of
punishing the people who are suspects of sharing false news, the Timorese
government put more effort into creating and crediting correct and
trustworthy data and news about the Coronavirus pandemic through its
Centro Integrado de Gestao de Crise (CIGC, 2020).During
the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak, the right to access
scientific/evidence-based information and freedom of expression should be
ensured simultaneously to strengthen the efforts between the people and the
government in fighting Covid-19. People need to know the information to save
their lives, and they need to speak up to inform the government. Moreover,
both rights are vital to maintaining democracy when many government
institutions are suspended without checks and balances. The key is that the
provisions of these rights must be made simultaneously and proportionally in
times of crisis. The reason for this is that without freedom of expression,
communities and citizens cannot express their thoughts and concerns regarding
lack of social and economic support and freedom of expression to figure out
how to protect themselves from oppressive government measures. Without access
to information, communities and individuals would not have good preparation
to protect their communities and clans in an efficient manner, as well as the
ability to monitor and track the government’s progress in containing the
Coronavirus. Both rights are essential to protect people from
Covid-19—especially in a developing country that still has so much to lose
from a health crisis.References:Rttl.ep,
2020. Journalist get attacked by two students from Indonesia in Motain
Timor-Leste. Available at: <https://www.facebook.com/370048750482193/videos/661039434465268/>
.Oekusi Post, April 16, 2020. Timor-Leste journalists … lack of decent
wages and associated benefits continues to discourage and undermine good
journalism in the country. Available at: <https://asiapacificreport.nz/2020/04/17/ifj-criticises-pay-cuts-for-timorese-journalists-in-frontline-virus-work/>
.Gmn Tv, March 2020. AJTL and TLPU ask ministry of health to treats
journalists with dignity. Available at: <https://gmntv.tl/id/sosiedade/2020/03/ajtl-ho-tlpu-husu-ms-trata-jornalista-ho-dignu/>
.Constitution RDTL, 2002. Constitution of the Democratic Republic of East
Timor. Available at: <https://www.constitution.org/cons/east_timor/constitution-eng.htm>
.United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Available at:
<https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html>
.CIGC, 2020. Information center for Covid-19 in Timor-Leste. Available at:
<https://diocesededili.org/2020/04/02/gabinete-gestao-de-crise-covid-19-declara-numero-caso-positivo-covid-19-iha-timor-leste-mantein-nain-ida-1/>
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