Image supplied. CSO COVID-19 Taskforce putting up COVID-19 prevention messages at a market, image credit Core Group Transparency

Civic space in Timor-Leste during COVID-19 Part 1: Governance and civil society

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only had global health, economic and social impacts, it has also impacted on civic space. But what has been the impact of COVID-19 on civic space in Timor-Leste? In the first of two articles Oxfam in Timor-Leste, looks at the impact of government and civil society responses. To understand this impact Oxfam commissioned a researcher to speak with civil society and government actors whose voices are highlighted in this article. This article focuses on the first three months of the State of Emergency (March to June 2020) when restrictions on movement, gathering and border entry were most severe in Timor-Leste.

The International Centre for Non-Profit-Law has identified 75 new COVID-19 pandemic government measures in 25 countries in the Asia and Pacific region that has had a negative impact on civic space. Civic space consists of the structures, institutions and enabling conditions that allow people to organise, act and speak up. A global trend of shrinking civic space has led to opportunities and the environment for people, organisations and the systems that support them to come together and take action, be reduced or restricted. In many countries this has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis presents an extraordinary threat to human lives and societies. The scale and reach of the crisis demands measures to protect public health and stop the spread of the virus. However, measures to stop the pandemic must be balanced by protections to safeguard human rights. In some countries, such as Myanmar, COVID-19 has been utilised as an opportunity to crack down on democratic freedoms. In other countries governments’ have pushed through new laws, surveillance and restrictive measures that have serious implications for civic space, such as the “OMNIBUS” law and related actions in Indonesia.

Timor-Leste has been bucking the global trend of contracting civic space, maintaining relative open civic space since independence and has consistently rated ahead of other South-East Asia countries in the Democracy Index. An independence struggle won on human rights grounds mean human rights and freedom of speech are still at the core of national identity. Regular engagement between civil society and government and formal mechanisms for civil society and public engagement with government exist, although limited, and equality, rights to congregate and free speech are in general upheld. Even so CIVICUS’s Timor-Leste civic space rating is “obstructed”, taking into account court cases against journalists, crack down on activists on certain issues, and the recent proposed defamation law discussed further below. These highlight that current open civic space in Timor-Leste should not be taken for granted.

COVID-19 came at a time of political impasse in Timor-Leste. The collapse of the governing coalition and the inability to pass the 2020 state budget in early 2020 meant the COVID-19 crisis hit Timor-Leste at a time of political instability and uncertainty. This combination of extraordinary situations and Timor-Leste’s history of past conflict and instability, led to widespread fear that political power and stability would be prioritised over public health. Within this environment it is remarkable that swift measures to control the spread of COVID-19 were taken by government and have been successful.

“In my view it was strategic to make a quick decision to close the borders and decide a State of Emergency... Due to this I think the decision the government made didn’t need public consultation. Because I think the State made the right decision.” Timor-Leste Civil Society representative, June 2020

At the time of writing, only 67 cases, no deaths and no cases of community transmission have been reported in Timor-Leste. Analysts argue the risk of COVID-19 took out the “heat” of the political crisis, contributing to unexpected progressions and a surprising new government coalition forming. This new government has led to relative political stability since. With no COVID-19 community transmission, the State of Emergency currently only restricts border entry and requires mandatory quarantine for people entering the country but does not limit domestic movement or gathering. Even with a positive COVID-19 outlook to date, the impact of COVID-19 has been severe, with food security and the economy hit hard. This has been further exacerbated by a long period of government only semi-functioning on a duo decimal system. There is now a fear that growing COVID-19 transmission across the border in Indonesian West Timor may increase the liklihood of the pandemic coming across the border, even with tight border restrictions.

Legal Frameworks

The clearest and most immediate impact on civic space during the COVID-19 crisis was the government’s quick action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, bringing in wide sweeping rules and regulations. Limitations on movement and gatherings impacted civil society actors, and the rest of the populations’ ability to work and carry out their lives. Civil society representatives indicated they were disappointed that there was no consultation with civil society about the State of Emergency rules and regulations or government response measures when initially developed. But it was also understood by many that the COVID-19 crisis was an unusual situation where quick action was needed which limited opportunities for consultation. Further space for consultation was dampened by the political impasse at the time. The subsequent success of COVID-19 measures in stopping the spread of the virus have arguably demonstrated that the restrictions imposed were necessary and justified.

“When we alter the Penal Code to criminalize defamation, the impact on society will be that it will make citizens fearful to share their views that critiques a decision a leader makes. The disadvantage will be that it will protect leaders and not protect the people.” Timor-Leste Civil Society representative, June 2020

During the COVID-19 crisis a significant threat to civic space arose. The government proposed a defamation law that among other things sought to protect the “honour” of public figures. This took civil society actors by surprise and was widely criticised by well-known national figures, international bodies, civil society actors and journalists for to its vague and subjective nature. This had the potential to compromise the right to free speech, and presented serious obstacles to journalists and whistle-blowers wishing, for example, to expose corruption.. A coalition of actors came together to advocate on the matter. Prime Minister Taur Matak Ruak also encouraged discussion and analysis from civil society. For now the threat has abated as the government is not prioritising the law. It is believed the broad outcry against the proposed law has influenced this, but it is unclear if and when it may come back on the agenda, and recent news of government drafting a new cyber-crime law has put civil society actors on alert again, with similar concerns of potential limitations of free speech These proposed laws demonstrate, that while Timor-Leste’s civic space is currently relatively open, the situation can change dramatically and quickly.

Consultation and Participation

Opportunities for civil society to engage with government and play a formal and influential role in government planning and response to COVID-19 emerged as the State of Emergency progressed. Such as monitoring of the Social Protection Household Payments and consultation on the COVID-19 economic recovery plan. Nonetheless there was a general feeling that government did not draw on opportunities to build a broader understanding or utilise civil society’s participation to improve its actions, data and approaches to COVID-19 earlier.

CSO media centre press conferences run by disability actors on the impacts of the covid response persons with disabilities. Image supplied, image credit: Ra’es Hadomi Timor-Oan

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) quickly moved to support COVID-19 prevention and responses at the outbreak of COVID-19. CSOs were well-positioned to support the delivery of a community-led pandemic responses: running awareness campaigns; providing hand washing facilities; supporting rights and social protections and addressing livelihood issues. CSOs also supported greater social accountability of state institutions, demanding that authorities fulfil their obligations during the emergency.

“We went to meetings with the State Council… and due to this some of the State of Emergency rules were improved based on our inputs. But the government didn’t develop necessary mechanisms to make improvements, even though we have seen that some of the language has improved, communication is still not sufficient as they (government) are lacking consultation and consideration.” Timor-Leste Civil Society representative, June 2020

This filled gaps while the government was initially slow to take substantive action beyond the public health response of information-sharing and establishing and improving the capacity of the public health sector. Many civil society actors worked informally with donated resources. Some were able to utilise and pivot existing funding. While some civil society actors ignored restrictions in order to undertake this work, many worked within restrictions or were given government exemptions. This demonstrated that government, particularly municipal and national government led COVID-19 taskforces, recognised the role CSOs have in times of emergency. Many became key actors in national and municipal COVID-19 taskforces.

Coordination was key. A CSO Team for the Prevention of COVID-19 was established including FONGTIL (the NGO Forum), Core Group Transparency (the social accountability network), Rede Feto (the women’s network) and Rede Edukasaun (the education network), Lao Hamutuk and Ra’es Hadomi Timor-Oan (National Disabled Persons Organisation). Bringing together diverse actors to coordinate, respond and monitor actiondemonstrated a united civil society front.

It also supported space for diverse voices—such as women, persons with disabilities, farmers and informal sector workers—to be heard. Timor-Leste’s civil society response to COVID-19 followed four key roles: 1) service delivery 2) advocacy and policy dialogue with governments, 3) establishing and preserving civic spaces that enable debate, contestation and collective action to influence policy; and 4) building social capital by linking people together, thereby also contributing to community cohesion.

“We saw during this time that people provided solidarity and support to each other. Within a few weeks NGOs started to organise each other and established a voluntary centre.” Timor-Leste Civil Society representative, June 2020

Functioning Public Administration

While Timor-Leste’s quick response to control the spread of the virus was successful, there were mixed reactions from civil society. While most felt that the initial public health measures were responsive and successful, there were concerns that the focus on health failed to consider the diverse economic and social impacts of COVID-19. Government responses and communication were much slower and, many argued, inadequate.

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Civil society actors noted that government action was slow: impacted by a duodecimal budget, the political impasse and a lack of accurate population data. Many government ministries and public servants stopped work during the state of emergency, bringing all but essential services, frontline responders and those supporting the response, to a halt. Coordination between ministries was also seen as slow and bureaucratic. This further delayed an already slow bureaucratic response. For example, when the CSO team for the Prevention of COVID-19  undertook monitoring of border municipalities they found state security forces were unable to undertake border night patrols to ensure no illegal crossings, as they were not supplied with lamps or sufficient Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). While budget was available to buy these items, they were required to go through government tender processes. Challenges and delays meant that money allocated was not utilised. The CSO team for the Prevention of COVID-19 ended up providing lamps and PPE equipment so border controls could be implemented.

“The State of Emergency has given us some important lessons. In 24-years we have established the infrastructure of government, but we have not been able to ensure the bureaucratic infrastructure of public administration functions.” Timor-Leste Civil Society representative, June 2020

The poor quality of data and the lack of data verification in the government’s targeted response were also raised as issues.  The response was not seen to meet the needs of those most vulnerable. For example, household subsidy payments were given to registered heads of households, who tend to be men.

There was miscommunication about rules and requirements related to the State of Emergency. Different interpretations in different municipalities led to confusion. Some municipalities closed markets or enforced stronger restrictions on people and/or transportation than others. Human rights abuses related to this were reported and there were arguably consequential increased social and economic impacts on people. While it was clear there was limited functioning public administration during this time, and government challenges in responding to the crisis, it did allow opportunities for civil society actors to step in and demonstrate their value and ability to respond in a crisis.

This article was written with the support of the Australian Government’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Governance for Development Program through the Oxfam in Timor-Leste Hadalan project. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government.

Stay tuned for part two later this week.

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