Monday, November 25, 2013

Read draft media law first, East Timor's print adviser tells critics

Otelio Ote, former Timor Post editorial director and now government print media adviser,
is upbeat over the Timorese media future. Photo: David Rbie/PMC

TIMOR-LESTE'S national print adviser has one piece of advice for critics of the controversial planned media law - read the draft document first before jumping to conclusions.

Otelio Ote, who until his state media office appointment in mid-July was editorial director of the Timor Post daily newspaper and is still a part-time editor there, is optimistic about the proposed legislation.

"The law isn't about control of the media, it's about shoring up the status of the media and making journalism more professional in this country," he says.

Ote revealed that the government plans to set up a national news agency in Timor-Leste next year, the first time the country has had one since Australian freelance journalist Roger East was commissioned to do the job immediately before the Indonesian invasion in December 1975.

East was murdered by invading soldiers after investigating the deaths of the so-called Balibo Five in a human rights atrocity - five Australians, Britons and a New Zealander who were reporting for two televison channels from the border town on pre-invasion Indonesian incursions.

Training task
The government also plans to set up a Journalism Institute by 2016 with the task of training and "professionalising" journalists.

A second national media congress was staged in Dili last month - the first having been held in 2001, the year before independence was "renewed" - and a mood of unity about the future of journalism has followed.

Journalists agreed on a national code of ethics at the congress.

But there has also been concern over the actual detail of the draft media law in the indigenous Tetun language.

According to Professor Mark Pearson, an Australian specialist in media law and the author of core textbooks on the topic, critics cited a draft law said to contain measures to license journalists with criminal penalties.

He wrote on his blog that the draft media law "proposed by a committee of journalists advising the government featured self-regulatory controls".

"However, the final version included amendments proposed by the Secretary of State for Social Communication, Nélio Isaac Sarmento, rumoured to include licensing and criminal sanctions," wrote Dr Pearson, who was also a keynote speaker at the congress.

"Opening the congress, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao scolded journalists for not having developed adequate self-regulation when he had warned them to do so in 2009."

Ote says the "united recognition of the importance of ethics" at the congress is really important for journalists as the country's media moves into a second decade since renewed independence in 2002.

"This is really important for the profession of journalism to have an agreed universal code of ethics," he says.

Ad-hoc system
"Before the congress, there was really only an ad-hoc system that varied between media companies."

But he says there has not been a lot of problems in the past 10 years - "only one investigative journalist had some issues to deal with". 

Ote says the draft law is about accreditation and "protecting journalists for the future".

"Shoring up the profession and spirit of journalism is very important for us," he says.

"We need to take care of our profession, develop the media, develop social media and put more effort into the training and qualifications of journalists."

Journalist organisations
Until now, the Timor-Leste media industry has had three separate, but complementary, organisations for journalists.

Ote is president of the Syndicato Journalista Timor-Leste, or Timor-Leste Journalists Syndicate  (SJTL), a sort of trade union that is concerned about working conditions in the media and wants ever journalist to have a contract.

The older Timor-Leste Journalists Association (TLJA), which organised the first national congress, is more concerned with professional issues and holding seminars and training workshops.

Both these organisations have offices in the National Press Centre.

The more recently formed Timor-Leste Press Club is a "mix of both of these approaches", according to Ote.

He is confident in the future of Timor-Leste's media and doesn't think four daily newspapers - Independente, Diaro Nasional, Suara Timor Lorosa'e and the Timor Post - are too many for the capital of Dili.

"The four newspapers are surviving now when the economy is difficult," he says. "The economy will grow and it will become easier. They will survive."

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