Angola’s Christmas Message to Pesky Journalists: Shut Up or Else!

On the eve of the Christmas celebrations in Angola, one of its most prominent human rights defenders, the investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist Rafael Marques de Morais, received an unexpected greeting: a summons to present himself at the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Services for interrogation about an alleged “insult” against the country’s Attorney General.

The “insult”, an alleged slander, related to the publication of evidence showing that business dealings by General João Maria Moreira de Sousa, Angola’s Attorney General, were contravening both the constitution and the law.

The official response was not to take action to verify whether or not the Attorney General’s activities might be in breach of the law, but instead to mount a renewed campaign of persecution against Mr Marques de Morais.

When information reached Rafael Marques de Morais that the Attorney General was erecting a condominium on land designated for rural purposes, he quite properly sought clarification from General de Sousa himself. He submitted his request in writing, enumerating thirteen questions that would give the country’s top attorney the opportunity to refute allegations that he had acted improperly or unlawfully.

General de Sousa chose not to reply. After two weeks, Mr Marques de Morias went ahead and published, citing as evidence the official record of the land sale transaction to the Attorney General: Case No. 144-KS/2011, signed by Serafim Maria do Prado, the then Governor of the Province of Kwanza/Sul.

Land designated for rural purposes is sold far cheaper than land for urbanization on the basis that it cannot be used for commercial building. Not only would the Attorney General be acting in breach of the government’s own rules by building on rural land, but he would also be guilty of a conflict of interest as the constitution specifies that as an office-holder he may not engage in commercial activity.

Evidently piqued by the embarrassing publication of these serious allegations against him, the General went on the attack. Angola does not respect “the rule of law” so much as “laws for the rulers to use as they please”.

The country’s laws impairing freedom of speech have been the subject of much criticism by the UN Human Rights Committee, a body that monitors compliance with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Around the globe, in most cases of alleged defamation, the defence can rely on evidence that what has been reported is the truth. And yet in Angola, the new trend is to sue first for crimen injuria (insult), that in US and other common law jurisdictions generally would not be enough to sue over. The advantage for the plaintiff is that such accusation does not allow the truth as a defence, and later on defamation charges could be added. This confusion benefits solely the powerful plaintiffs.

A Supreme Court ruling dating back to 2000 established that journalists can be prevented from using truth as their defence in lawsuits not just involving the President, but lesser members of his government. That year journalists Aguiar dos Santos and Gustavo Costa were both convicted of defamation even though their only ‘crime’ was to have reported the truth. Aguiar dos Santos was convicted of defaming the President. But Gustavo Costa was convicted of defaming the President’s Chief of Staff.

New defamation laws introduced in 2006, were widely used by the government to silence its critics. According to a Human Rights Watch report: “In 2008, Graça Campos, a journalist and editor of the weekly paper Angolense, was sentenced to a six-month suspended jail term for publishing articles accusing three former ministers of involvement in corruption. In March 2011, Armando Chicoca, a correspondent for Voice of America, was sentenced to a year in jail for articles critical of a judge in Namibe province. In February 2014, Queirós Chilúvia, another journalist and deputy director of Rádio Despertar, was sentenced to a six-month suspended jail term for investigating screams and cries for help emanating from a police station.”

This would not be Rafael Marques de Morais’ first brush with the defamation laws. He was imprisoned in 1999 and in 2015 earned a a six-month suspended sentence for revealing torture and killings in Angola’s diamond fields. Human Rights Watch had this to say in 2013 about defamation charges laid against him:

“The 11 lawsuits brought against Marques – Angola’s most prominent investigative journalist, human rights defender, and anti-corruption campaigner – are the latest attempt by Angolan officials to silence his reporting. Marques has exposed a range of high-level corruption cases and human rights violations in his blog, and pursued sensitive investigations into human rights violations in Angola’s diamond areas.”

“Angola has found its criminal defamation laws very useful to try to squelch reports about corruption and human rights violations,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Angola should be investigating these reports of serious human rights violations instead of trying to silence the bearers of bad news.”

All Angola’s journalists have been expecting a crackdown on the reporting of corruption, bad governance and outright criminality by President José Eduardo dos Santos and his ruling MPLA government in the wake of five new media laws, dubbed the “Social Communication Legislative Package”, which were rubber-stamped by the MPLA-dominated parliament in November.

The new legislation is squarely aimed at silencing all criticism of the President, who has held power for the past 37 years, ahead of a general election in 2017 in which he may well be the ruling party’s candidate again. Under Article 82 it even criminalizes the publication of images, such as cartoons, which can be deemed “offensive to individuals.”

Rafael Marques de Morais remains unrepentant. He says: “Bring it on: interrogations, criminal proceedings, other persecutions… whatever! Truth will out. And justice, sooner or later, will triumph. The struggle continues.”