No journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in this young democracy, but the media law adopted in 2014 hangs over journalists like a sword of Damocles and encourages self-censorship.
This former Portuguese colony, invaded by Indonesia in 1975, obtained its independence following a self-determination referendum in 1999. Now, with many publications in the Tetum language, Portuguese and even English – including the leading weekly Tempo Semanal and the dailies Suara Timor Lorosae and Independente – the country’s media are among the freest in the region. Radio Televisaun Timor Leste is the main broadcaster. The Press Council and the journalists' association organise training and have their own fact-checking body, which is backed by the United Nations Development Programme.
During Timor-Leste’s short history as an independent nation, the executive power’s division into a president and prime minister has helped to limit press freedom violations. Politicians nonetheless regard the media with some mistrust, which has been evidenced in several proposed laws hostile to press freedom, including one in 2020 under which defaming representatives of the state or Catholic Church would have been punishable by up to three years in prison.
Articles 40 and 41 of the constitution protect freedom of the press and of expression. Although the 2009 penal code decriminalised defamation, journalists involved in legal disputes are threatened by misuse of article 285, which covers “slanderous denunciation”. The Press Council created in 2015 is intended to facilitate a peaceful resolution of disputes involving journalists, even if the process of electing its members lacks transparency.
By law, Timorese media are required to be transparent about their ownership, and cannot be more than 30% foreign-owned. Outside Dili, the capital, print runs are very low, above all because of illiteracy, the high price of newspapers compared with the average purchasing power, which is low, and the absence of provision for distribution across the country. Technical difficulties and the lack of Internet access limit TV and online media’s reach into rural areas, leaving some inhabitants with no access to any form of media other than radio, which therefore plays a fundamental role.
A culture of deference and respect for hierarchy continues to permeate journalism, to the point that some editors are content to reproduce the official reports of press conferences. There are still cases where journalists are paid by the organisers to attend press conferences. The influence of the Catholic Church, followed by more than 95% of the population, deters journalists from covering some sensitive subjects, such as the emancipation of women, the right to abortion or paedophilia in the clergy.
Journalists are usually free to report the news and are rarely the targets of harassment or physical attacks. But they are exposed to many forms of pressure that limit their freedom, including legal proceedings, intimidation, police violence and public denigration of the media by politicians.