COVID-19 Op-ed

Gagging Timor Leste: Threatening Freedom of Expression in the time of Covid-19

Written by admin

Dulce M. da Silva and Celso da
Dulce is a
Lecturer and vocal point of HRC-UNTL, Timor-Leste, Department of Social
Communication, Faculty of Social
Science. Celso is a Master Student of
Human Rights and Democratisation, APMA and Global Campus, Mahidol

Timor-Leste is a young independent country in Southeast Asia
with a high democratic index (Freedom House, 2020). It has been serving as
the role model of democracy, at least for the region. Timorese citizens have
been enjoying their political and civil rights, including freedom of
expression, since gaining independence in 2002. However, the notion of
freedom of speech is exacerbated by an anti-defamation bill, which was tabled
by Government at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak.The State rationalized
their move to criminalize defamation based on two arguments. First, it is to
prevent anyone from publicly insulting, offending and criticizing political
leaders or government officials by any means. Second is to “educate” people
to respect political leaders, veterans, and other Timorese citizens. The
draft law seeks to shift gears from civil code to penal code because the
current defamation law has a weak legal force to punish people who insult
national leaders and veterans. (Tatoli, 2020)When the proposed defamation law
was announced though Portuguese Agency News (Lusa) on 6 June, it provoked
many criticisms from activists, students, academics, and human rights
defenders (Tatoli, 2020). Since then, civil society groups have been raising
grave concerns regarding potential negative impacts of this draconian
law—which will impede basic rights and freedoms in the country. Mr. Jose
Ramos Horta, a Noble Peace Laureate, reminded government officials that
“freedom of expression is a gift of Timorese independence” (Tempo Timor,
2020).A law of such kind could exacerbate the weakening of press freedom and
freedom of expression, which are both constitutional rights in Timor Leste.
As emphasized by the President of the Media Council of Timor-Leste, Mr
Virgilio da Silva Guterres and representative of the Ombudsman for Human
Rights and Justice Timor-Leste, Mrs. Benicia Eriana Magno, freedom of
expression is crucial for Timor-Leste as a democratic country. They also
stressed that the act of criminalizing free speech is against the
Constitution of Timor-Leste and the international human rights. ( GMNTV,
2020).The main motive behind the criminalization of defamation is to protect
and preserve reputation of political elites, who seem to be frightened by the
emergence of public dissent and criticism. What these officials refuse to
admit is that people are discontented by the policies and actions—especially
on ways the Covid-19 pandemic was handled. Instead of gagging dissent and
criticism, the government should accept its fault, and concentrate on
improving its mechanisms for the good of everyone living in this tiny
democratic nation.References:Freedom
House, 2020. Global Freedom Status, Available at <>
GMNTV (2020) Lere apela ba Timor oan hotu atu respeita lider sira, Parte
kompotente tenke kria lei regula medsos. 13 April 2020.  Available at:
GMNTV (2020) GMNTV Live Stream-Grande Entrevista. 11 June 2020 : Available
at: <>
OHCR. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  Available at <
>KRDTL, 2002. The Constitution of Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
Available at: <>
Tatoli, 2020. AJTL Kontra Ezbosu Lei-Kriminaliza Difamasaun. 16 June
2020  Available at: <
Tatoli, 2020. MJ Hakarak Kiriminaliza Defamasaun Tanba Ema Balun la Respeitu
Nailun Sira 20 May 2020. . Available at: <>
Tatoli, 2020. Governu presiza rona komunidade midia sosiedade sivil ba lei
kriminaliza difamasaun. 09 June 2020. 
Available at: <>
Tenpo Timor, 2020. Horta Kontra Kriminaliza Defamasaun. 9 June 2020.  Available at <

About the author