There will soon be a Media Law for Timor-Leste to include a media regulator authority, this seems more a matter of time rather than a point for debate. But why is it that we need one, or rather why is this particular law a priority for the current government?

Following on from two previous media law drafts proposed by earlier governments that were not passed by the National Parliament, it was only during this current government the media law was finally passed and sent to President of the Republic Taur Matan Ruak for promulgation.

The President did not promulgate it; rather he sent it to the Court of Appeals to check whether certain sections were anti-constitutional. And some were in fact deemed anti-Constitutional.

The Media Law draft now once again rests with Commission A of the National Parliament for further deliberation before it is sent back to the President for promulgation.

During a recent debate I took part in, at the III Meeting of the Platform of Entities Regulating Social Communication in the Countries and Territories of Portuguese Language (PER), held in Dili from 29 September – 3 October 2014, a Member of Parliament from Commission A said the media law is designed to protect journalists in Timor-Leste.

But what does this mean? What and who do journalists need protection from in Timor-Leste? Everyone in Timor-Leste seems to be suggesting that journalism and journalists need protection.... mainly from themselves it seems.

As a media professional, it concerns me when politicians and members of parliament say they drafted a media law to protect journalists; after extensive consultation with representatives of the media. I know for a fact these consultations could have been conducted much better.

Over the past 15 years, there have only been a few incidents where journalists have been targeted. And there have only been 2 or 3 instances where journalists have landed themselves in trouble with the law because of poor reporting.

The media is vibrant and freedom of expression and the press is felt and expressed in reality. We all know who the journalists are because they are validated as such by their peers and by the community and by the journalism they do for the media organization they work for.

At The Dili Weekly we license our reporters, not everyone is a reporter, only those who report and write the news. This is an internal process that has worked over the past seven years without an incident. We never needed a formal license or a government funded body to tell us who can be a reporter with us.

Looking at the 2013 international rankings by Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, Timor-Leste’s media enjoys Partial Freedom, and occupies 90th place out of 179 places in the global Freedom of the Press Index. We fair much better than most of our fellow Portuguese Speaking Countries.

Timor-Leste has one of the freest media in the whole Asian region. This is something that as media we are proud of and that should be celebrated not just by the media but by all Timorese.

But this ranking was determined before a media law was passed by the National Parliament and before the same draft attracted worldwide condemnation by it seems everyone; by Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch, and the International Federation of Journalist. Articles condemning Timor-Leste’s media law were also published in the Economist and on Time Magazine.

But if the world is alerting to the potential threat the new media law draft is to Freedom of the Press and Expression in Timor-Leste, inside the country everyone, including, naturally, politicians and members of parliament but also, unnaturally, a fair few also in the media, seem to the completely oblivious to this or just dismiss these criticisms.

Timor-Leste is being criticized by the same organizations that not even 20 years ago we were working with to condemn the atrocities committed against the Timorese during the Indonesian occupation. I remember drafting urgent action reports to be sent to Amnesty International as a young activist. And now we seem to have turned deaf to what they are alerting us to be cautious about.

At that same seminar I attended and as part of the same panel of speakers, I was a lone voice, in a sea of Portuguese Speaking Country Media Regulators against a media law at this point in time for Timor-Leste. But more astonishingly, both media representatives part of the same panel representing the East Timor Media Fund Foundation (FFMTL) and the Association of Timorese Journalists (AJTL), both acknowledged supporting the media law.

I have never understood why in Timor-Leste media representatives and media professionals (except for a minority of us) want a media law to regulate them and the profession.

The media ought to be saying ‘We don’t need or want a media law’; this should be the position of the media. This is a natural position because for the media to be independent, it needs to be free. If the natural position of the government it to try and regulate Freedom of Expression, the natural position of the media is to try and ensure Freedom of Expression remains as unregulated as possible or at least self-regulated. 

The media does not need to support the government pass a media law. If the Government wants to pass a media law, it will just find a way to do it, and in the case of Timor-Leste, it could be finally about to. And this could spell the end of Freedom of Expression and of the Press as we have known and felt it over the past 15 years.

I might be wrong because there are no absolutes in life but when it concerns Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression I rather be wrong than be proven right, because very soon I might not even be able to say or write what I think anymore.

This is a clear case of ‘If it isn’t broken don’t fix it’. Our Freedom of Expression and of the Press is not broken, yes it needs serious improvement and to be more professional, but it is not broken to the point of justifying a media law. Professionalizing the media will be best achieved through better education and by fixing the media environment including Freedom of Information legislation rather than a media law. This media law won’t likely ensure the media is freer or more professional but it will regulate and likely control the media and its voice.

I am not even sure if there is still time to do anything about it, as processes in Timor-Leste are always left to the last minute. And it is at the last minute consultations are held, most key stakeholders do not attend, and things, such as a media law, are passed.

This is perplexing but Timor-Leste is a nation where the seemingly impossible is often possible.