Joanico Alves, Timor Leste
The full enjoyment of freedom of expression and access to information is key to ensuring people’s participation and government’s accountability in the fight against Covid-19. People need to express their voices to inform the governments about their condition and concerns. Therefore, people need to have access to evidence-based information about the Coronavirus pandemic as well as spaces and opportunities to quickly express what they see, what they think, and what they need in light of the crisis. Although these rights are fundamental, in crisis, they could be limited or controlled by politicians. Journalists are crucial defenders often in the front lines to uphold the freedom of expression and keep people and government informed during the Coronavirus pandemic. Although they are essential to help the people and the government to combat the Coronavirus pandemic, they are also vulnerable to different kinds of risks of little social protection, no economic support, and threats of physical violence.
Many journalists work actively without masks, gloves, personal protective equipment, and poor salaries. In Timor-Leste, many earn only the minimum wage per month of USD $150. According to some journalists from the Timor Post, journalists depend on institutions or civil groups to provide essential goods, such as rice, water, noodles, and soap, during a crisis. They also have to provide their own masks. In addition, they might not be able to access, correct, or update information and data if the government fails to provide them communication support and transparency. The Association of Timor-Leste Journalists and the Timor-Leste Press Union asked the Ministry of Health to provide clear information to the media. As a result, they requested that the government should cooperate with journalists and open space to ask questions regarding the Coronavirus pandemic. Journalists could also easily face threats of physical violence.
Recently, Timorese citizens abroad have not been allowed to enter Timor-Leste due to the lockdown. On 23 April 2020, six students who study in Indonesia illegally returned, and the Timorese government quarantined them at Mota-ain, on the Timor-Leste border with Indonesia. When one journalist tried to get information from them, suddenly, two female students attacked the journalist because they did not want to be exposed.
Freedom of expression along with the right to access information are fundamental rights of everyone, though they could be limited in a health emergency. Timor-Leste Constitution Article 41(a)(2) says that “Freedom of the press shall comprise, namely, the freedom of speech and creativity for journalists, the access to information sources, editorial freedom, protection of independence and professional confidentiality, and the right to create newspapers, publications and other means of broadcasting”. UDHR 1948 Article 19 emphasizes the right to freedom of expression on media and other platforms as well as other forms of communications. Journalists should have the right to access information sources without facing any violence. In a time of crisis, their jobs are especially significant to inform civilian directives, data, and related information from the government and other sectors. Journalists monitor the government’s preparedness and response to the crisis and facilitate opinion exchange and formation of public debate and discourse, especially when politicians cover up the cases of human rights violations and failures of flattening the curve.
One of the important things about information about the disease and the progress of the government response is that people can know how to protect themselves while monitoring government practice in fighting Covid-19 on the media. Failures to gain information could further lead to contagion and more casualties. However, access to information could be given in times of crisis, at the cost of limiting freedom of expression. In many Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, governments are implementing policies and laws to purge people for spreading false information, which raised the concerns that politicians might use this as opportunities to silence dissent. Timor-Leste did not create fake news laws, and it is relatively open to criticism and dissent. Instead of punishing the people who are suspects of sharing false news, the Timorese government put more effort into creating and crediting correct and trustworthy data and news about the Coronavirus pandemic through its Centro Integrado de Gestao de Crise .
During the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak, the right to access scientific/evidence-based information and freedom of expression should be ensured simultaneously to strengthen the efforts between the people and the government in fighting Covid-19. People need to know the information to save their lives, and they need to speak up to inform the government. Moreover, both rights are vital to maintaining democracy when many government institutions are suspended without checks and balances. The key is that the provisions of these rights must be made simultaneously and proportionally in times of crisis. The reason for this is that without freedom of expression, communities and citizens cannot express their thoughts and concerns regarding lack of social and economic support and freedom of expression to figure out how to protect themselves from oppressive government measures. Without access to information, communities and individuals would not have good preparation to protect their communities and clans in an efficient manner, as well as the ability to monitor and track the government’s progress in containing the Coronavirus. Both rights are essential to protect people from Covid-19—especially in a developing country that still has so much to lose from a health crisis.
*The contents of this opinion piece are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the view of the either Global Campus of Human Rights Asia Pacific, the universities under it, or the APMA program.