Until recently, President Taur Matan Ruak made little use of his legislative powers. Yet that changed when Timor-Leste’s National Parliament approved a ‘repressive’ media bill that reportedly poses a serious threat to press freedom in the country. The President requested the Court of Appeal to undertake an anticipatory review of the constitutionality of the parliamentary bill.
President Taur Matan Ruak has largely refrained from using (non)legislative powers to change policy since he took office in May 2012. Unlike his predecessors, Gusmão and Ramos-Horta, he has not criticized government policies in official communiqués, returned bills to Parliament, nor vetoed legislation. Indeed, no major institutional conflicts have occurred between President Taur Matan Ruak and incumbent Prime Minister Gusmão.
Yet the President refused to promulgate the controversial media bill. The bill has been wending its way through the tiers of government for over a year. Timor-Leste’s Council of Ministers approved a draft of the media law in August 2013 and Parliament passed it on 6 May this year, without a dissenting vote. The President however refused to sign it. Instead, he sent it to the Court of Appeal, to ensure that it “will not excessively limit the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution.”
The media bill came under fierce criticism from human right organisations, civil society and journalists’ unions. The bill would create a licensing system for journalists administered by a five-member government-funded press council. Media organisations would be prohibited from employing uncertified journalists. The licensing system would apply to domestic and foreign media outlets, giving the press council the power to deny access to Timor-Leste to foreign correspondents.
Several provisions in the law also allow the government to impose severe constraints on reporting. For instance, it obliges journalists to “promote the national culture” and to “encourage and support high quality economic policies and services.”
On 20 August the Court of Appeal ruled that certain provisions in the bill are in breach of the Constitution. Prime Minister Gusmão, who has been a key promoter of the media bill, is believed to be furious with the Court’s ruling. The Prime Minister had become increasingly irritated by criticism of his government and especially by the local media’s accusations of corruption. He accused them of being unruly, unprofessional and disloyal.
Parliament now has three options:
- Do nothing. In this case, the bill “dies”.
- Revise it in order to address the Court’s objections, and perhaps make other changes, and pass it again.
- Re-pass the bill without any changes. To pass a bill over the President’s and the Court’s objections requires a two-thirds vote of members present in Parliament.
It is believed that the parliamentary majority will accept the ruling of the Court and the President. President Taur Matan Ruak has strong support among local journalists and he seems convinced not to allow the law to pass as it stands or risk alienation from the press which is an important ally he has and may be needed in the future to advance his claims.
The President can still veto a revised bill on political grounds. Parliament, however, can override a political veto with a simple majority.