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Journalists in East Timor are voicing alarm over a new penal code recently signed into law under which individuals who publish statements deemed to defame public officials can be imprisoned, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

Signed by Prime Minister Mari Altakiri on 6 December 2005, the new code enters into force on 1 January 2006. Some legal experts say the code gives more protection to public officials than to ordinary citizens.

Under Article 173, anyone can be jailed for up to three years and fined for publishing comments seen as harming an official's reputation. The penal code does not set limits on fines and other penalties for defamation.

SEAPA says East Timor's weak and inexperienced judiciary makes the criminal defamation provisions particularly worrying. It also says the provisions could undermine media coverage of the presidential and national elections in 2007.

Local journalists and legal experts had called for parliamentary debate and public consultations on the penal code provisions, but their pleas were ignored.

SEAPA says government officials have taken an increasingly adversarial stance toward journalists in the past three years in response to more critical reporting from the country's fledgling press.

For updates on freedom of expression in East Timor, visit:

Visit these links:

- IFEX Alerts on East Timor:
- International Press Institute Report on East Timor:
- Freedom House:
- Internews East Timor:
- BBC Profile of East Timor:

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