Dancing to the tune of a better-informed citizenry

Ivo Valente, Vice-Minister for Justice, receives a traditional welcome at the start of a community outreach meeting in Laclo, Manatuto
Ivo Valente, Vice-Minister for Justice, receives a traditional welcome at the start of a community outreach meeting in Laclo, Manatuto. Photo Christine Kearney/UNDP TL

Dili – For people living in rural Timor-Leste, access to news and information is extremely limited. Internet access is patchy and expensive, radio and TV are intermittent and newspapers rarely make it outside the capital, Dili.

The lack of media and the internet in rural areas is something people accept with a shrug of the shoulders.

But it is a problem for Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Justice. How do you inform people about new laws or government services when there is no media through which to broadcast this information?

In response to the information vacuum in rural areas, the Ministry started a remote area outreach program in 2010, calledTaking Justice to the People.

In February 2012, UNDP’s Justice System Programme funded a Taking Justice to the People outreach session in the lush mountain-top town of Maubisse.

Highlights

  • The Taking Justice to the People campaign reached more than 5,000 people across the country's 13 districts over 2010-2012.
  • According to a 2011 UN survey, 16 per cent of the population has no access to any media and obtain their information about from traditional leaders and by word-of-mouth.
  • The survey also found that remote regions having the poorest access to information.

Two hundred and fifty local residents, including village leaders, farmers, mothers, a class of local high school students and curious children, turned up to listen to government representatives speak about everything from a new property law, to domestic violence and border passes.

Peppered throughout all the presentations from the speakers were reminders about government services and about the rights of those in the audience – the rights of women to live free from violence for example and the rights of children to be registered at birth.

For Filomeno de Araújo, 55, a civil servant, the outreach session was “fantastic”.

“It’s great that the Ministry of Justice and their team have come to our town and been able to provide a lot of useful information,” he said.

Also attending the session was Isabel Salsinha, 17, from a local senior high school.

Unlike teenagers in other parts of the world, Isabel isn’t a regular Facebooker. She doesn’t know anyone who has internet access at home. It’s simply too expensive.

Supporting sessions like the one held in Maubisse are an important part of a broader access to justice program, says Andrew Harrington, UNDP access to justice policy specialist in the Justice System Programme.

“Without knowledge of rights, laws and government services, people’s ability to access justice is a non-starter,” he said.

Celito Cardoso, director of the Ministry’s National Directorate for Human Rights and Citizenship, said the outreach program also encourages Timorese to think about how they can contribute towards a society in which the rule of law is respected.

“Our target is the strengthening of a democratic, law-abiding Timor-Leste,” he said.

“We hope we can build on the consciousness and the sense of responsibility of each citizen, about how to live in this country... and so that they know the civic rights and duties.”

At the end of these outreach sessions, the local community and Ministry officials usually hold a post-event fraternidade dinner. After everyone has eaten, the tables are cleared away, a local band swings into action and public servants and locals dance, cheek-to-cheek, into the night.

When the dancing is done, public servants pack up their information road show and head back to the capital Dili.

But for people like Isabel, they will have planted the seeds of some important knowledge.

As she explained: “We learnt about human rights and about laws [in the outreach session].... this is our land, our nation and as Timorese, it’s important that we have this information.”