Journalist faces criminal defamation threat in East Timor

Bangkok, February 29, 2016 – The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on East Timor’s prime minister, Rui Maria de Araujo, to drop the criminal defamation complaint he is pursuing against freelance journalist Raimundos Oki. Oki faces up to three years in prison if convicted of defamation for a report for the Timor Post newspaper alleging possible irregularities in a government computerization project, according to press reports.

The legal complaint stems from an article Oki published on November 10, 2015, about possible bid-rigging in a project Araujo’s government awarded to a private company to supply and install computers at the Ministry of Finance, according to press reports. Oki’s article, citing internal government documents, alleged that Araujo had, while working as an advisor to the minister of finance in 2014, recommended that the same company win the multi-million dollar contract.

Oki told CPJ that he first received written notice of the criminal complaint on January 22, and that public prosecutors summoned him for questioning twice since, but later cancelled the scheduled meetings for unknown reasons. The prosecutor’s investigations, which Oki said were still in progress as of February 26, would determine whether the state would file formal charges, Oki said.

Oki said anonymous callers have called his mobile several times since he received written notice of the investigation against him, accusing him of trying to destroy the ruling Fretilin Party, and telling him he needs to be “careful.” In response to those threats, Oki says that he now travels only with a group of colleagues when returning home from work at night.

“We call on Prime Minister Araujo to drop his criminal defamation complaint against journalist Raimundos Oki and to instruct police to investigate the anonymous threats Oki has received,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Criminal defamation laws have a toxic effect on press freedom in all countries that have them on their books. Araujo should work to abolish East Timor’s defamation laws, not use them.”

Oki told CPJ that Araujo declined the opportunity to comment for his original story, an opportunity East Timor’s Press Law requires journalists give to subjects of critical news articles. One week after Oki’s original report ran, the Timor Post published, on its front page, Araujo’s reply, in which he denied any irregularities in the project’s bidding procedures. The following day, the paper published a correction to the spelling of the name of the private company that won the contract, but not to the spirit or content of the original story, according to Oki.

East Timorese officials have used criminal defamation laws to suppress media criticism of their actions in the past. Oki faced a similar criminal defamation suit in 2013 over his reporting, then for the local Jornal Independente newspaper, on a state prosecutor’s controversial handling of an automobile homicide case. A District Court judge ruled that Oki’s reporting was not defamatory, but nonetheless made him pay a $150 fine for causing the official “psychological disturbance.”