As a still young state trying to establish itself, within itself and in the world, Timor-Leste’s commitment to recognising and upholding human rights, in particular civil and political rights, has been widely welcomed. For a people who have suffered such egregious human rights abuses, it is consistent that they wish to never suffer such abuses again.
One of the criticisms of supporting civil and political rights is that people also have other needs and rights, including the need for material well-being and related economic, social and cultural rights. What needs to be remembered, however, that not only are these two sets of rights not mutually exclusive, they are also mutually interdependent.
To illustrate this point, it is difficult to advocate for political and civil rights when one is starving. Yet it is also not possible to advocate for economic rights if one does not enjoy civil and political rights.
Civil and political rights in particular are divided into rights from, for example arbitrary arrest, detention and torture, and rights to, including assembly, organisation and freedom of speech. Of these ‘first generation’ rights, freedom of speech is arguably the most important and that which is fundamental to our existence as human beings.
Beyond language being the principle identifier of being human, it is also the mechanism through which we order and develop our ability to think. A capacity for speech and the higher order ability to conceptualise that is intimately related to speech. Limitations upon speech are, at a fundamental, an assault on our existence as being human.
Without being able to speak freely and to communicate, being able to assemble and organise is meaningless. So, too, being able to protest against arbitrary arrest, detention and torture requires the ability to communicate freely.
Assuming other rights are not threatened, freedom of speech and communication is a necessary part of an open, plural political society. It allows its constituent members to discuss and propose ideas, to debate, to question and to criticise. It is the means by which citizens advocate representatives and by which those representatives are held accountable.
All major political actors in Timor-Leste have freely exercised this right to freedom of speech. The political campaigns, in which party supporters parade, are an expression of free speech. Public commentary by political actors and observers are also an expression of free speech.
However, in order to protect this right, it is not enough that just some people or organisations can exercise it. Such a right must be respected by all as being available to all. This is, sometimes, where Timor-Leste’s political society struggles to put an idea that all agree to support into consistent practice.
In the past, there have been attempts by a number of political actors to limit the freedom of expression of the media or of particular journalists, through threats of defamation and other draconian laws. There are probably grounds for protecting the reputations of individuals where a false claim intended to damage has been made. In this, the rights of free expression are moderated by the rights to protection against inaccurate or malicious defamation. The balance between the two is usually referred to as ‘fair comment’.
Beyond the use of laws and other regulations, there have also been threats, of various types, and intimidation made against individuals who have annoyed some political parties by raising questions or observations about their performance or capacity. In this, there is a sense that anyone who does not agree with a particular party’s perspective should be, at best, shouted down. They might also receive implied or explicit threats, or worse.
But raising questions or offering criticism, even sharp criticism, of political leaders’ performance or simply raising uncomfortable questions must be allowed - and endorsed - in any political society allowing difference of opinion and thus claiming to respect human rights. Dissent and alternative views are a legitimate, healthy and necessary part of a plural democracy.
It is unfortunate then, in a period of heightened political competition, there has been a temptation to return to closure of public discussion. Political actors telling someone who asks questions to ‘be careful’, for example, does not reflect the type of tolerance or political freedom they claim for themselves.
This is especially troubling when the source of the threat feels free to mount highly emotive, sometimes factually questionable, allegations of their own. In so doing, they hypocritically drape themselves in freedom of speech.
This is not to suggest here be any particular limitation on what people, or parties, can or cannot say. It is to assume, however, that disagreements of policy or interpretation should be met with rational argument, rather than with threats, intimidation, or worse.