The Death Knell for Freedom of the Press in Angola

January 23, 2017 will go down in the annals of Angola as the day on which freedom of the press died. This was the day Angola’s new media legislation was published – a basket of five individual laws introducing a regulating body and stringent controls on journalists, the internet, the press, radio and television broadcasting.

The new media laws have been rushed into being six months ahead of crucial presidential and parliamentary elections this year and it is feared their purpose is to ensure that the only information allowed to reach the Angolan public, toes the ruling-MPLA’s party line.

In a page straight out of the German Nazi propaganda playbook dreamt up by Carl Schmitt, the new rules and regulations are so general and ambiguous that their interpretation depends on case-by-case ruling by the minister, a judge or similar. Freedom of the Press henceforth will depend on the individual whim of a party-political adjudicator.

In the public interest

Take one example: Article 10 of Law 1/2017 states: “All social communication media have the responsibility of assuring citizens’ rights to inform and be informed in accordance with the public interest.”

The key words are “in accordance with the public interest”. Who determines the public interest? Article 11 goes on to make it clear: the public interest is whatever the organs of power define it to be. Article 84 defines the organs of power as the Ministerial Department responsible for Social Communication and in the final analysis, that department’s boss, the President of the Republic.

In effect, this grants the President and his appointee the legal powers to limit press freedoms, because he, or the Minister he appoints, has the power to determine what is, and what isn’t, in the public interest. Would the President or his Minister consider it in the public interest to allow publication of a report on the alleged financial improprieties of senior figures in the MPLA regime? Doubtful.

Illicit production of information

The Media Law contains what appears to be a general, anodyne, prescription for publication: it states that reports must be objective, rigorous and impartial, defend the public interest, safeguard privacy and reputation. It goes on to specify that press freedom does not apply to “the illicit production of information”, stating that journalists may not publish information obtained by illicit, disloyal or fraudulent means.

This creates a grey area for Angolan journalists and allows the powers-that-be to go after both whistle-blowers and the journalists to whom they take any stories of malfeasance. Any report that could be considered a breach of privacy or that impugns the good name and reputation of a political figure close to the regime, would henceforth be a legitimate target for reprisal. If such a law had existed in the USA in the 1970s, the Washington Post would not have been able to publish the Watergate revelations that brought down President Richard Nixon.

Clampdown on web critics

The law takes particular aim at those who use the internet to publish their critiques of the present Angolan regime. The MPLA has been regularly embarrassed by revelations published by Club-K, Maka Angola, Folha 8 and other digital publications. Websites like Maka Angola have been a thorn in the side of the MPLA regime and in particular President José Eduardo dos Santos himself, and play a leading role in focusing opposition.

This explains why the government required a specific law to control digital media and ensure web content would come under state control. The new law creates a Regulatory Body with powers to regulate and supervise Angolan web content. It has the power to revoke, annul or suspend those websites whose content fails to obey the rigorous criteria of “good journalism”, as determined by the Regulatory Body itself, which simultaneously has the power to “guarantee” editorial responsibility in the event that there is a violation of the law, or its self-defined “principles that inform social communication”.

Media police

The law confers police-like powers on the Regulatory Body to pursue investigations in any place where (social) media activity may take place – that includes workplaces, schools, peoples’ own homes and any public spaces where a journalist may happen to be.

For example, Rafael Marques, the editor of Maka Angola, works from home with a laptop set up in his kitchen. Under the new law, anyone working for the Regulatory Body would have the right, without a warrant, to enter his home, go through his personal effects and seize or confiscate any item they might consider related to the production of his website.

In effect, the MPLA has created its own digital media police, governed by a Council of Directors chosen by MPLA deputies and the MPLA government. There can be no mistaking the intent of Angola’s ruling party. With the departure of José Eduardo dos Santos from the Presidency after 38 years, the party cannot afford anything but a seamless transition of power to the next in line. Any information that might disrupt this can now, conveniently, be banned. It will be no surprise that the only information deemed to be legitimate and in the public interest will be information that serves the MPLA’s interest first and foremost.