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Timor-Leste must stay true to democratic, human rights underpinnings when expanding digital rights framework, Southeast Asian MPs say

03/10/2023

Timor-Leste must stay true to democratic, human rights underpinnings when expanding digital rights framework, Southeast Asian MPs say

DILI – Timor-Leste’s admirable commitment to democratic and human rights principles in its 20 years of independence must be maintained and strengthened as its internet access, and online expression, expands, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today at the conclusion of a fact-finding mission to assess the state of internet freedoms in the country.

During the fact-finding mission from 30 September to 2 October, APHR’s delegation, which consisted of current and former lawmakers from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines met with Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos Horta, the Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice (PDHJ), the National Press Council, the National Communications Authority (ANC), the National Parliament, as well as with representatives of civil society and media organizations.

“Timor-Leste has consistently punched above its weight when it comes to democracy and human rights, and we are inspired by how far the country and its vibrant civil society has come following its long struggle against colonialism and dictatorship,” said APHR member and Penang State Legislative Assembly member Gooi Hsiao Leung. “While there are issues that need to be addressed, especially in the face of growing internet access and availability, we are confident that Timor-Leste can overcome them if it remains true to the ideals that underlie the country’s foundations.”

Timor-Leste’s fervor to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms is evident in its 2002 Constitution, and is further proven by having the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian country to be categorized as “free” in Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index. Nevertheless, the country also faces challenges that must be attended to in order to maintain its status as the most democratic and rights-respecting country in the region. 

Chief among them is the limited information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in the country, which has resulted in internet connectivity that is among the slowest and yet also the most expensive in the world. 

“We applaud the Timorese government’s initiative to expand internet speed and availability through submarine as well as terrestrial fiber optic cables. In this digital age, equitable access to the internet must be a priority , as it also significantly affects basic rights such as access to information and education,” said APHR Member and member of the Philippines House of Representatives Raoul Manuel. 

And while freedom of the press in Timor-Leste is highly-rated by global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, journalists and civil society members have raised concerns about looming threats towards freedom of expression online. While so far no journalists or ordinary citizens have faced prison sentences for peaceful expression, some have faced prosecution, as well as intimidation and harassment from law enforcement authorities.

The previous government has also attempted to reintroduce articles criminalizing defamation into Timor-Leste’s Penal Code, and a draft Cybercrime Bill tabled in 2021 included vaguely-worded provisions that could potentially be used to silence political dissent.

“We understand that increased internet availability and online expression may require more regulation and monitoring. However, our experiences in our own countries have shown how such regulations, if not accompanied by the necessary safeguards, can result in abuse of power and repression of critical voices,” said Manuel.

The Communications and Multimedia Act in Malaysia, the Cybercrime Prevention Act in Philippines, and the Cybersecurity Act and Computer-related Crimes Act in Thailand have all been used to criminalize and silence peaceful expressions of political opinions online.

“We therefore call on the Timorese government and parliament to ensure that any legislation that regulates online behaviors does not violate the freedom of expression and freedom of the press that is enshrined in Timor-Leste’s constitution and international human rights law,” said APHR Member and former Thailand member of parliament Kunthida Rungruengkiat. 

Apart from legislation, the APHR delegation also noted the importance of promoting digital literacy among both the general public as well as in state institutions and law enforcement agencies. 

“While regulations can sometimes be necessary, one of the most effective ways to ensure that the public is protected from the adverse effects of the internet is by building their capacity to recognize and understand the different types of content that can be found online, including fake news and hoaxes,” said Rungruengkiat.

“We also urge all parliamentarians and government officials in Timor-Leste to be open to criticism and to stand up for those who are harassed and prosecuted by state actors for peacefully expressing their political opinions. Though online criticism can at times be unnecessarily harsh, we must recognize that as public figures, our decisions affect the public interest and therefore must be subject to public comment and, at times, public disapproval,” said Gooi Hsiao Leung.

Click hear to read this statement in Tetum.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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