This article is written by Juvita Pereira Faria as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Juvita is a youth activist passionate about women’s empowerment and gender equality. She formed the Youth Leadership Development Program Timor-Leste (YLDP-TL), a youth group providing free leadership training to both young men and women. She currently hosts a podcast and spearheads other efforts around digital literacy education among Timor-Leste youth.
While the population of Timor-Leste consists of 50-percent youth aged 15-25, it is also a country with under-developed digital infrastructures and a public highly vulnerable to attacks against human and digital rights, such as threats to their digital security, online harassment, and mis- and disinformation. The country’s internet infrastructure is also behind its regional counterparts; national internet speeds are significantly lower than average and the cost to connect online is much higher compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. In general, it can be observed that social media users in the country face challenges in navigating the internet with an effective, positive, and educative approach. Many individuals post on private accounts that are not safe and consequently insecure.
Timor-Leste’s youth thus plays an important role in the emerging digital era, especially on social media. This article examines the role of young people as digital rights advocates for all generations. In particular, the youth should be champions of digital literacy and education, through which more awareness can be raised about the importance of personal privacy, access to reliable information, and protection of the press and freedom of expression, as stated clearly in the article 40 in Timor-Leste National Constitution.
Threats to freedom of expression online
Although there is press freedom in Timor-Leste, internet users still struggle with internet connectivity and lack political willingness to protect and promote digital rights within the country. Recent legal mechanisms, such as the reinstation of criminal defamation in the Penal Code in 2020 and the 2021 draft Cybercrime Law, also pose limits to freedom of expression online and threaten democratic discourse.
In today’s experience, young Timorese youth have critically shared their opinion on social media and argued specific cases such as political participation, youth unemployment, and economic development, however, they in return are immediately threatened and captured with no legal obligation to do so.
In 2023, a youth female activist named Variana was arrested by the national police for critical comments online against top leaders in the country. However, she was released afterwards with no penalty during the investigation process. Variana’s post was considered a common critical argument on social media, which meant she should have been protected by the freedom of expression clause in the Constitution.
Variana’s case is not uncommon. In the country’s 2022 Universal Periodic Review, the United Nations Human Rights Council enumerated similar human and digital rights violations in the country, among which were threats to freedom of expression and association. While the recommendation focuses on the rights of media, all citizens – especially the vocal youth – should be afforded the same rights.
Call to prioritize digital literacy and awareness among youth
It is important indeed to facilitate the young population to understand and take advantage of the internet to promote freedom of expression, the protection of cyber security, and digital inclusivity. Providing access to information and resources on digital rights ensures that marginalized communities, including women, children, and rural populations, are not left behind in the digital evolution.
One such youth-led project is JPF Podcast, in which this article’s author is involved. The podcast and its related activities, which started in February 2023 aim to increase awareness among the Timor-Leste youth about emerging technology in the region through digital training, a public colloquium, and an online podcast talk show. The initiative’s first event was held on September 30, 2023, with the theme “Digital Rights: Opportunity and Challenges of young people in navigating social media in Timor-Leste”. The event aimed to equip young people with the necessary knowledge and skills that will facilitate and enable them to make informed decisions and navigate the digital landscape with confidence and resilience.
Another initiative is the Youth Accelerator Lab, which is funded by UNDP and aims to promote young people’s capacities to navigate through digital and technological space (UNDP, 222). This digital initiative explores a skills-based approach for young people to be able to operate the online world for educative purposes.
Digital rights education is essential in Timor-Leste to empower individuals to protect their privacy, promote freedom of expression, foster digital inclusion, and more. May more youth initiatives like these come to fruition and continue to prosper.