Court Ignores Media Law

The trial of journalist Ramiro Aleixo began yesterday at the Luanda Provincial Court. Aleixo stands accused of the crimes of defamation, slander and injury against the military justice system, namely its Supreme Court and office of the military attorney.

In September 2007, the defendant wrote two articles in the now defunct weekly newspaper Kesongo, about the trial and conviction of the former director of the Angolan Intelligence Services, general Fernando Garcia Miala, exposing the judicial process as a farce. Initially, it was publicly revealed that there was an investigation of general Miala for an attempted coup.

To the journalist’s surprise, and to the surprise of the Angolan public at large, the general ended up in court accused of insubordination, for refusing to attend a public ceremony in which he was to be demoted from the rank of three-star general to lieutenant-general. He was convicted to four years in jail, while three of his closest aides were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail.

In his editorial ‘The Dangerous Track’, before expressing his opinion of the proceedings that lead to the incarceration of the general and his aides, Mr. Aleixo rejoiced over the role of the privately-owned media’s coverage of the case. According to Mr. Aleixo, the Miala case “showed the country, and the world, the importance of private media in the country’s democratization process.” He further stated: “In all journalistic coverage of the case, no private media outlet favored Miala or his aides. Only facts and opinions of legal experts were expressed and even most of these were off the record, given the fear inspired by the regime.”

Without quibbling, Mr. Aleixo expressed his opinion about the case against the high-ranking officers of the Angolan Intelligence Services. According to him, “the Miala case was a mock trial because the interests of power ruled over those of justice.” He further added that, because it was impossible to prove a supposed attempted coup, “the President of the Republic, José Eduardo dos Santos, transferred to the military jurisdiction the responsibility of punishing his former ‘loyalist’.”

The trial of Mr. Aleixo is now an extraordinary opportunity to evaluate the Angolan judicial system. The defendant was notified through an edict published in the state-owned daily newspaper Jornal de Angola, on 11 April, 2012. The presiding municipal judge, Alfredo Lourenço Martins, justified the decision of publishing the edict on the grounds that the court clerks had not been able to locate the defendant over the previous three years. In fact, Mr. Aleixo has maintained the same residential address, in Benguela province, where the newspaper was published, and the same address was included in the edict. Moreover, Mr. Aleixo was the spokesman for the Organizing Committee of the Africa Cup of Nations in Benguela from 2009 to 2010, a post that gave him plenty of media visibility.

From a legal standpoint, the accusation against Mr. Aleixo has two serious flaws. The public prosecution, represented by Ms. Teresa Caumba, is basing the accusation solely and exclusively on the Penal Code, ignoring the Media Law, which regulates the sector, in its entirety. The prosecution claims that the defendant “committed the crime with the use of excessive power”, and therefore with aggravated criminal responsibility, based on article 13º, 11, of the Angolan Penal Code. The prosecution did not present any information on the type of power used by the journalist or its excessive use.

The second flaw relates to jurisdiction. According to article 45 of the Angolan Penal Code, provincial courts are competent to hold trials on the cases in the provinces where the crimes are committed. Mr. Aleixo’s editorial was published in the weekly Kesongo, based in Benguela, where the newspaper was printed and distributed. Therefore, as stated by the defense attorney, Benja Satula, it is the Benguela Provincial Court that is fit to hold the trial and not its Luanda counterpart.

Furthermore, neither the presiding judge nor the public prosecutor expressed interest in hearing the plaintiff, the current Deputy Attorney-General for the Angolan Armed Forces, general Hélder Pitra Gróz. The judge only asked him about his time serving as a military justice officer. Ms. Caumba excused the plaintiff, alleging that the charges had been registered in the court records and there was no need for further questions.

However, in his answers to the defense attorney about the supposed attempted coup, general Pitra Grós made revelations that could as well have been copied from the second editorial written by Mr. Aleixo, ‘A Story Untold’.

In his opinion piece, Mr. Aleixo stated: “I don’t know of one single case in Africa in which someone accused of an attempted coup has not been arrested, forced into exile or brutally assassinated, with or without trial.” General Pitra Grós defended the Commander in Chief and the regime by stating exactly the same.  The only semantic difference was that the general said, instead of brutally assassinated, “or something worse, as being killed.” This last sentence was kept off the court records.

The journalist could hardly hide his shock in the face of the general’s validation of the content of his text, considered defamatory, calumnious and offensive. During the trial, the general kept looking down and upon cross-examination he mumbled, as if wishing not to be heard.

In a way, the suffocating atmosphere of the courtroom is also a symbol of the value attributed to the exercise of justice. The other judge, appeared to be suffering from the heat and fell asleep, indifferent to the trial proceedings, only to be awaken from her lethargy by the presiding judge. Of the 60 lamps in the courtroom ceiling, only 17 were working, which created a dimly lit atmosphere. The walls have long lost their white paint, so dirty they look brown now and are a good indication of the state of neglect of the provincial court.  The public prosecutor, also humbled by the heat, declared herself too tired to proceed, while the defense attorney showed his vigor and willingness to present his allegations.

At the end of the hearing, which lasted for four-and-a-half hours, the judge scheduled the presentation of the defense allegations, the cross-examination, and the reading of the sentence for May 25.

The defense attorney, Benja Satula, shook his head. And then he put himself in jeopardy. He dared say that he could be punished for stating that, by scheduling the presentation of the defense allegations, the cross-examination and the reading of the sentence, for one day, the judge may have already decided on the trial’s verdict.

It is chilling to note that, with one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, the Angolan regime has no money to replace the broken lamps in a courtroom where the honor and dignity of its ranking officers are supposed to be upheld. Nor are there the meager resources to fix the air-conditioning and maintain the comfort of the magistrates who, in disregard of the laws, defend the power-holders at all costs.