President Dos Santos Wants Dictatorial Control of the Net

Angola’s President for the past 36 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has used his traditional end of year speech to announce legal measures to control social media and the internet, which he feels have been offending and humiliating him.

Announcing his main projects for the New Year, the President ignored the famine currently affecting residents in the southern province of Cunene along with the many other challenges faced by the Angolan people.  Instead, he is prioritizing further ways to silence the growing criticism of his increasingly-dictatorial regime.

This is equally the case with Angola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’, Isabel dos Santos, the President’s billionaire daughter.  This Christmas she had a  “Let them Eat Cake” moment, choosing to spend US $2 million on bringing the Anaconda rapper Nicki Minaj to Luanda rather visiting Cunene in her role as president of the Angolan Red Cross to assist local communities severely affected by the drought.

Social media promptly responded with a swelling chorus of criticism of the presidential family for lacking any compassion for the long-suffering  Angolan people.

In truth, Dos Santos’ desire to control the internet (in the same way that he controls the state media such as Jornal de Angola, the Public Television  of Angola (TPA), and the National Radio of Angola (RNA)) dates back to 2011.  At the time, the president sent a draft bill to the National Assembly for a “Law to Combat IT, Communications and Information Society Service Crimes.”

That coincided with a presidential speech warning of the evils of social media,  one of the few areas of public comment that still eluded control by his regime.   Regime-watchers concluded that Dos Santos was very concerned with preventing any repeat in Angola of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ which saw a rapid growth in anti-regime protests via social media, that led to the overthrowing of decade-long dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond.

Still clinging to power after 36 years, José Eduardo dos Santos is one of the world’s longest serving leaders.

Yet under pressure to implement a true democratic process in the country, JES turns to “double-speak” saying in a public speech that “Democracy is an imposition from the West.”  This lack of coherence can only go unchallenged because of the absence of a culture of debate, and the imposition of a cult of personality in Angola.

Let us recall that this is the same president who, in 2001, stated clearly that he would not be a candidate for the ruling MPLA at the next presidential elections. Fifteen years have gone by and he is still in place.  Does Dos Santos hope to stay on until death parts him from power?

Meanwhile, in the face of growing criticism the president says he wants to re-introduce the “Law to Combat IT, Communications and Information Society Service Crimes”, initially passed by the National Assembly in 2011, but suspended due to public outcry.

One of the bill’s articles (art 17, no 1) prohibits the sharing through an information system of any film, recordings or photographs of a person without his or her consent.  Failure to comply can result in a prison sentence of between two to eight years.

Another curious clause in the article states that the criminal procedure will depend on the complaint.  This is an odd principle:  can we conclude from it, for instance, that sharing a photo of the president without his consent could result in imprisonment?

Are we dealing here with shoddy language in the draft or does the regime actually hope to install an absurd censorship of the digital sphere, like that seen in North Korea?

Also, the mandatory submission of complaints reveals that the complainants will be members of the presidential family, the attorney general and other members of the regime who are regularly the subjects of criticism in social media.  And yet the bill would exclude state media and institutions from compliance.  Placing these above the law  presumably means they are free to offend citizens at will.

Even the content of electronic or text messages could result in criminal charges and potential imprisonment because anyone who shares “without consent” or with the intention of disturbing the “peace” and “quiet” of the  family or sexual life of another person, faces a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment.

Incidentally, the terms “peace”, “quiet” and “personal life” are not defined in the bill; their interpretation is left to the police, security bodies and magistrates.

Similarly there is an ambiguous definition of acts of terrorism,  which lends itself to potential abuse, such as e.g. legitimizing  serves the detention of anyone who dares to displease the president. In this case, “any person who, through the social media or the internet, will share information with the aim of undermining the working of state bodies, forcing the authorities to carry out certain acts, or will abet such an act, will be punished with 12 to 16 years imprisonment (art 24, n 1).”

Once again, there is an enormous margin for arbitrary interpretation of the law. In effect, this amounts to a legal device that will criminalize the use of Facebook, blogs and other information technology tools.

The proposed bill would also allow defense and security bodies, “in their work to guarantee territorial integrity, as well as national sovereignty and the security of the Angolan state, to secure data and information without authorization from legal authorities (art 75, no 1).”

This would give the authorities ‘carte blanche’ to search any place linked to a critic of the regime, without the need for justification or a legally-executed warrant. Members of the domestic and military intelligence services, who oversee the surveillance of the main critics of the regime, would be able arbitrarily to search computers, telephones, memory disks, DVDs.

In effect, this law would mean the criminalization of the Internet, a key tool in the evolution of free speech in Angola.   As we have entered the New Year of 2016, all we can say is: Come on, José! Ditch this bill and join us in a new and more open era.   We are waiting for you.