Recently in Timor-Leste, suggestions have arisen about the need for a law governing social media content. Concerns have emerged about the acrimonious comments and discussions on social media, which rarely cite evidence and encourage division, and usually involve misleading account names which make determining their identity almost impossible. Political leaders in particular have demanded a law regulating rhetoric that insults them. While FM believes that the destructive patterns on social media warrant concern, it also demands that all laws protect citizens’ right to free expression.
Certain basic principles must govern any such defamation law. First of all, no social media statement should be liable to prosecution if it is true. Regardless of the comment’s divisiveness, prosecuting accurate statements would undermine democracy in Timor-Leste. Furthermore, the law should focus on deliberate misinformation, not mere inaccuracy. Outlawing inaccuracies could allow the Government to use minor errors as a pretext for cracking down on freedom of speech. If a defamation law is necessary, it should target individuals who are intentionally trying to mislead the public about political issues.
However, the best defence against the rancour on social media consists of improving education and access to information. When citizens receive their information from credible sources, they will be less vulnerable to provocative statements on social media. Given the severe shortcomings in the current Timorese education system, prosecuting people for false allegations against the political elite will not meaningfully improve the quality of public discussion.
Further problems have emerged regarding the police’s investigation of such social media cases. On TV-TL and GMN, footage appeared of the police questioning suspects accused of insulting political leaders on social media. The publication of police interrogations violates the principle of secrecy that should govern all police investigations. In Timor-Leste, suspects are “innocent until proven guilty.” However, when interrogations are aired on television, the suspects immediately receive the condemnation of the entire community, before they have undergone any kind of legal process. This constitutes highly unprofessional conduct by PNTL members and FM calls on their commanders to institute disciplinary proceedings for the PNTL members involved.
Consequently, it is imperative that the police keep suspects’ identities confidential. These steps are indispensable for making the rule of law a reality in Timor-Leste. The Government should continue investing in capacity-building around police investigations so that investigative procedures are fair to both suspects and victims.