Asia's newest country Timor-Leste bets on good old press freedom amid disinfo

Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 16 2022 05:43 PM | Updated as of Oct 16 2022 05:46 PM

MANILA, Philippines -- At a time when disinformation is being linked to the rise of authoritarian regimes, one of the world's youngest states is betting on free press as a pillar of democracy. 

Facing parliamentary elections in 2023 that may see the installation of new lawmakers, there is hardly sense of fear or uncertainty in a possible change of leaders from citizens of the 20-year old Timor-Leste, said Alberico Da Costa Junior, a senior journalist.

Alberico Da Costa, a veteran newsman from Timor-Leste, believes press freedom is critical in a democracy. Photo by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News
Alberico Da Costa, a veteran newsman from Timor-Leste, believes press freedom is critical in a democracy. Photo by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBN News

Da Costa became a journalist in 2003, a year after the country gained independence in 2002 following the 1999 vote from East Timor people in a referendum to break from Indonesia. 

No journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in the post-independence Timor-Leste. Yet, by Da Costa's own admission, Timor-Leste's press situation is not perfect as it tries to uphold self-regulation against a backdrop of laws that spell out press responsibilities. 

The relief is that the press is included in consultations and decision-making every step of the way, Da Costa said. 

Citizens are confident in their democracy as long as there is "food security and political maturity," said Da Costa, director of Media Development and Analysis at the Press Council of Timor Leste, where he also serves as the Media Monitoring and News Subscription Manager. 

"Politicians may fight with each other but people do not care about political campaigning," Da Costa said Friday. 

"We are not afraid, we have security. Sometimes there are also hate speech. Politicians attack one another. These will just go on. But we are not worried at all," he said about citizen outbursts on social media. 

These statements came ahead of Timor-Leste's annual commemoration of journalist deaths that happened Oct. 16, 1975. 

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Candles are lit for the 40th anniversary in 2015 of the Balibo Five - journalists who were killed Oct. 16, 1975, a day Timor-Leste now commemorates annually. Source:

Timor-Leste's own press freedom day

On this day, Timor-Leste remembers the 'Balibo Five' - 5 journalists who were killed in Balibo in the lead-up to Indonesia’s invasion of Timor in 1975. They were Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, and Gary Cunningham. 

Their deaths were part of a wave of attacks against journalists and media professionals. Several others were killed in the 1990s as journalists interviewed Timor-Leste guerrilla fighters and documented human rights violations, and published stories on Timor-Leste's diplomacy to counter Indonesia's military and government campaigns at the time. 

Timor-Leste citizens would look at journalism as a partner in their country's struggle for independence, Da Costa said. 

"Historically, journalism and the media have contributed to Timor Leste's self-determination and independence. So this us why becoming a journalist is... "unique" because you can play your role as a journalist to contribute to the country as part of "social comptroller..." And because of this history of the past, journalist, many foreign journalists, they were killed because of the self-determination of the country," he said. 

Because of this, October 16 is marked as a press freedom day in the country, Da Costa said. 

After independence was won in 2002, global development agencies supported media and journalism organizations during the transition period. 

As misinformation and disinformation swept the world, polluting information ecosystems that had been undermining democracies, Da Costa said Timor-Leste continues to have faith in the power of a free press. 

"Democracy is a system where people are living in peace. Democracy without press freedom -- there will be nothing. So if we want democracy to exist, we have to promote, we have to defend press freedom. That's the only way that everyone can go," Da Costa said. 

'Good leaders are key'

Da Costa believes good leadership that inspired people's trust is key to citizens' faith in democracy. He said he does not expect a change with elections next year. 

Nobel Peace Prize José Ramos-Horta, who went on to become president, is now in his second stint and will serve until 2027. Da Costa said Ramos-Horta is able to deliver food security and political maturity. 

"People still respect him (Ramos-Horta)... People do not care about (political campaigning)... People do not care about that. People will remain calm," Da Costa said. 

The mostly Catholic southeastern Asian nation with four centuries of Portuguese colonization history and decades of tension with neighbor Indonesia has 1.5 million people and is about the size of Palawan province in the western Philippines. It remains a developed nation with about US$1,457.8 GDP per capita -- half the Philippines' -- although it has oil and gas resources.

"This technology-intensive industry, however, has done little to create jobs in part because there are no production facilities in Timor-Leste. Gas is currently piped to Australia for processing, but Timor-Leste has expressed interest in developing a domestic processing capability," according to the CIA World Factbook.

Reuters reported just last month that "East Timor's majority owner of the huge Greater Sunrise gas field said piping gas from the field to be processed in East Timor can be done economically and would be much cheaper to run than if the gas were piped to Darwin in Australia."

Time to come together, organize 

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), with its hundreds of Filipino journalists from 49 chapters in the country and abroad, called the Timor-Leste press freedom situation "an inspiring yet challenging scenario." 

Paul Soriano, NUJP Project Manager for Media Safety and Media Ethics, said Da Costa's characterization of the press as a partner in achieving Timor-Leste's independence is indicative of the power of the media in helping alleviate dire conditions faced by a nation. This is not new in the Philippine context, Soriano said. 

"The challenge is to firmly hold these freedoms as tightly as they (and we) could. In the case of the Philippines, while press freedom and freedom of expression are clearly stipulated in the highest laws of the land, history tells us that tyrants and dictators still found their ways to infringe on these rights and render the media voiceless. What succeeded was a never-ending pushback, as in the case of mosquito press, alternative media groups, and media organizations being borne out of these situations," he said. 

Situations like Timor Leste’s may be the best time for journalists to come together, organize, and make all efforts to be independent and withstand potential abuses of power by governments, especially amid the rise of 'infodemic,' disinformation, 'law-fare,' and people’s distrust towards the media, he said.

The proliferation of wrong information during the pandemic came to be labelled as 'infodemic,' while 'law-fare' is the weaponization of laws against journalists. 

Way forward for journalists 

On Saturday, a day before this year's commemoration of the Balibo Five deaths, Da Costa was to mark his birthday. He was excited to go back to his family after being away for days. 

His eldest of four sons will graduate soon and he hopes he will take a job in the country's oil and gas industry. 

In the meantime, Da Costa says he would continue in whatever capacity he can in the storytelling of his country's struggles and challenges. 

"People say journalist is actually a profession, is a vocational profession. I love it even right now, I'm working for the press council but I'm still continuing to write even the articles regarding press freedom and journalism," he said. 

Young Filipino journalists find Da Costa's dedication to his craft admirable, and are hopeful that journalism would continue to contribute positively to Timor-Leste democracy. 

Janvic Mateo, a reporter of the Philippine Star, cites the need to be cautious now.

"I'm happy with what they (Timor-Leste journalists) achieved and hopeful they continue to have the support of government, general support of the public. At the same time, I hope they would not be complacent and hope they put protection measures considering disinformation, and other possibilities of people taking advantage of the situation," Mateo said. 
Mateo cannot help but look inward to the Philippine press' own struggles, and said he remains hopeful, but wary. 

"It would not be good to expect something positive then get something way off. I'd rather be wary so that I am prepared. I'm not being too complacent. It's better to be always be prepared and vigilant," he said.