Journalist Raimundos Oki calls it an honest mistake, the PM says it was defamation, and a young democracy is tested
“If the court wants to send me to jail, I won’t be happy but I have to be brave. I will accept the final decision. I’m ready to be in prison if the court maybe wants to put me in the prison.”
Raimundos Oki, a 32-year-old journalist, is standing in the small offices of the Timor Post, in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, exasperated with his government.
“I’m not a corruptor, I’m not a criminal.”
Oki is facing jail time as the country’s prime minister pursues a criminal defamation case against him and the Timor Post.
Last week Oki appeared in court alongside his former editor, Lourenco Martins Vicente, where prosecutors pushed for one year’s jail for Oki and a two-year suspended sentence for Martins. The pair will learn their fate and any subsequent sentence next week.
Ahead of the sentencing decision, human rights and press freedom organisations including Amnesty, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and international media unions have again called on authorities to drop the case.
A November 2015 article claimed Rui Maria de Araújo, as an adviser to the finance minister, had recommended a winning bid for a government supply contract, but misnamed the company.
As Oki recounts from the prosecution’s case, Araújo believes the article made damaging and incorrect insinuations which hurt his reputation.
Under Timor-Leste press law, Araújo was given a right of reply the following week, and a correction of Oki’s report and apology was published the following day.
But in January 2016, Araújo – who became prime minister in early 2015 – filed a criminal defamation suit and has dismissed subsequent pleas to back down.
“I already said publicly that there was a mistake, we recognised our mistake publicly,” says Oki. “I’m not scared but I’m worried about the laws here in Timor-Leste ... You don’t use the penal code to criminalise the journalists.”
It is the second time Oki has been charged with a crime over an article.
Jane Worthington, program and development director for IFJ Asia Pacific, says the mistake was dealt with “as is the international standard” and the criminal case was “outrageous”.
“It’s going to leave a black mark on Timor-Leste and also it just sends a really bad message out to authoritarian regimes who see this as an inspiration that they can lock up journalists for what is effectively criminal defamation,” she tells the Guardian.
Worthington says Oki’s story is still in the public interest, and the chilling effect on local media would be “debilitating”.
“It’s quite hypocritical to be on one hand promising the country as a beacon of press freedom, when you could have journalists thrown into jail,” says Worthington.
“This is not a standard the country can be proud of.”
José Belo, Timorese journalist and former head of the Timor-Leste press union, accused government leaders of using the law to oppress media.
“When Oki and Lourenco from the Timor Post, go to jail, that’s the beginning of a new era of the country’s leaders killing the free press,” he said last week.
Amnesty International says it believes Oki’s mistake was made in good faith, and has pointed to the Timor-Leste constitution as well, as domestic and international law which provides for freedom of expression and the press and the protection of journalists.
Because of the court case, Oki was unable to get a visa to Australia to spend time in ABC and Fairfax newsrooms, at the invitation of the ABC and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and separately, the Australian media entertainment and arts alliance, under the Balibo Five-Roger East Fellowship.
“It was extremely disappointing that because of the charges hanging over his head, that visit was unable to proceed,” says MEAA chief executive, Paul Murphy.
“MEAA strongly condemns the use of defamation law to attempt to inhibit media scrutiny in Timor-Leste. This is a backward step for press freedom in the still-young democracy in Timor.”
The Guardian has spoken to a number of Timor-Leste government members and bureaucrats who maintain that their country respects press freedom but that Oki broke the law and must face the consequences. None believes there is a problem with the law.
At a speaking event in Darwin earlier this month, former president José Ramos-Horta said the country was “100% committed to free media”, but had different understandings of the concept.
“Does an individual have a freedom to such an extent that he or she can offend another with innuendo and allegations that are unproven?
“Rui is a man of absolute integrity, and he was angry – rightly so – when this completely false allegation was printed. The journalist knew it was false so they apologised. Rui said: no this is not enough.”
Horta also rejected suggestions Timorese media laws were draconian, and said they were similar to European laws.
The possible jailing of a journalist comes at a crucial time in Timor-Leste’s approach to press freedom as it rebuilds a democratic republic following Indonesian occupation.
The country dropped 26 places in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index after it adopted media laws which included a requirement that all journalists be formally registered.
The subsequent creation of a statutory press council – which would oversee the registrations – was tentatively welcomed but its independence has been questioned given it is government-funded and includes two parliamentary nominees.
“The idea of a government-funded body giving approval to who can be a journalist is just a worry,” says Worthington. “This should be left to the adjudication of the media industry.”
Oki and Martins face court for sentencing next week. The IFJ and others will attend to continue their lobbying and report on the proceedings.
The office of Araújo has been contacted for comment
Helen Davidson | in Dili | The Guardian
Photo: Prosecutors pushed for one year’s jail for Raimundos Oki, pictured, and two years suspended for his former editor Lourenco Martins Vicente. Photograph: Helen Davidson for the Guardian