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Draft media laws seriously threaten free expression

A set of draft laws prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on behalf of the government of East Timor, while containing several positive legal protections, are rife with dangerous provisions that would undermine the media's ability to perform their vital role in the recently independent nation.

ARTICLE 19 and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) say the five draft laws must be revised to meet international free expression standards.

The proposed laws regulate everything from the establishment of a Media Council to access to information to community broadcasting. Often too far reaching and prone to misuse, the laws "represent a stumbling block to the young nation's path towards democracy and economic stability," says SEAPA.

Of pressing concern are the obligations individual journalists must fulfil in order to work as licensed members of the media. For instance, new "professional identity cards" are only to be issued to media members who meet certain qualifications, such as having five years of experience as working journalists. ARTICLE 19's detailed analysis of the proposed laws argues the licensing rules have the potential to either bar those who fail to meet certain arbitrary standards from practising journalism or create a "two-tier structure" between those who possess identity cards and those who do not.

A section outlining journalists' "duties" are potentially prone to abuse by authorities and are not justified by public interest, say the IFEX members. Journalists are required to use two sources and refrain form gathering information that affects the dignity of others. ARTICLE 19 calls on this section to be removed, or at least fundamentally reworked.

The lack of stipulations protecting the proposed Media Council's independence heightens the danger posed by the regulatory body's powers. Not only would members of the council be appointed by parliament - raising serious doubts about its impartiality - the council would extract part of its revenue from fines levied against journalists, an obvious conflict of interest.

Media outlets that breach protocol three times within a five-year period are subject to having their licences suspended and receiving a fine ranging from US$500 to $5,000, which is extraordinarily high in relation to income standards in the country.

SEAPA and ARTICLE 19 also note several other troubling aspects of the bills, including the stipulation that only one community radio station can be licensed in a given community, and the harsh penalties associated with disclosing confidential government information.

While the IFEX members recognise the positive developments in the draft legislation (such as protections safeguarding the anonymity of sources and the encouragement of public access to information), SEAPA says the controversial aspects of the bills "negate any of the positive, even sincere, aims behind the proposed laws."

Given the incipient nature of independent media outlets in East Timor, the implications of the heavy-handed regulation and prohibitively expensive fines are especially dire, claims SEAPA. "With only about 200 reporters in the entire country, there is concern that restrictions on journalism could lead to a weak and timid media just as Timor Leste is trying to build up its democratic institutions," SEAPA says.

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