Bill governing cyberspace threatens to restrict freedoms as State of Emergency extended

Bill governing cyberspace threatens to restrict freedoms as State of Emergency extended

On 26th April 2021, Timor Leste's Superior Council for Defence and Security (CSDS) and the State Council (SC) recommended a thirty-day extension of the State of Emergency to President Francisco Guterres Lú Olo, to stem the rise in COVID-19 cases. On 28th April it was extended to 1st June. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 the country has logged a total of 1.897 confirmed COVID-19 cases with three deaths, The country just completed its 12th State of Emergency, effective from 3rd April to 2nd May 2021.

Oxfam’s two-part report titled ‘Civic space in Timor-Leste during COVID-19’, released in February 2021, examined the impact of COVID-19 and restrictions placed by the government on civic space and governance in the country. It noted the government’s initial lack of consultation with civil society on the State of Emergency rules and regulations. Miscommunication on the rules and requirements related to the State of Emergency also led to confusion around compliance, with some municipalities enforcing stronger restrictions than others.

In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released in April 2021, Timor-Leste had the best press freedom rankings in the Southeast Asian region, coming in at number 72. However, RSF reported that various forms of pressure are used to prevent journalists from working freely, including legal proceedings designed to intimidate, police violence and public denigration of media outlets by government officials or parliamentarians.

Restrictions related to a proposed law governing cyberspace and the ongoing state of emergency threaten to affect the country’s civic space.

Expression

Cybernetic bill to prevent falsehoods on social networks proposed

In January 2021, the public prosecutor drafted a cybernetic bill to govern the use of social networks and to prevent the spread of ‘falsehoods, slander and defamation’. The bill was submitted for the Ministers' consideration on 4th January 2021. The Republic Attorney, Jose Ximenes mentioned that the proposed law will be adjusted to align with the Criminal Procedure and the Penal Code. According to information received in early May 2021 from local civil society, the bill is being discussed with the Minister of Justice and several NGOs.

As previously reported, civil society and journalists strongly opposed plans in 2020 to criminalise defamation, for its ‘far-reaching consequences’ on expression of opinion. Critics called it a violation of tenets in the Constitution, which is bound to weaken the country’s democracy. While the government has reportedly de-prioritised the proposed defamation law, news about the proposed cybernetic law raises concerns on potential violations of free speech in the near future.

Despite the absence of criminal defamation, vague and arbitrary provisions in the Criminal Code have been used to target journalists, particularly through denuncia calunioza' (slanderous denunciation), as previously documented.

Peaceful Assembly

Gatherings prohibited under state of emergency

The State of Emergency, as previously, provides the government with powers to take measures needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It allows the government to suspend movement within the country and to ban gatherings, meetings and assemblies.

On 8th March 2021, a sanitary fence and mandatory quarantine was imposed in the capital, Dili, prohibiting people from travelling, except for reasons of health, security or for humanitarian reasons ‘considered necessary for public interest’. On 14th March, Timorese police detained more than 200 people for violating confinement rules in Dili. These individuals were later released.

Former Prime Minister joins COVID-19 protest amidst lockdown

Former Prime Minister and independence hero Xanana Gusmão joined protests outside the Vera Cruz health centre in Dili on 12th April 2021 to call for the release of the body of Armindo Borges, the second recorded COVID-related death in Timor Leste. Xanana Gusmão disputed claims that Borges had died of COVID-19 and called for the body to be released to the family, instead of being buried in a designated cemetery for COVID victims. He was also filmed slapping members of Borges’ family, reportedly scolding them for screaming.

For two days he staged a protest, carrying a coffin outside the national hospital in Dili, to oppose the country’s handling of the pandemic. He also slept outside the hospital with Borges’ family members to prevent the body from being taken for burial.