Constitutional Challenge to Angola’s New Media Laws

The main Angolan opposition party, UNITA, is launching a legal challenge to the MPLA government’s latest attempt to gag criticism of the regime. In a petition to the Constitutional Court, UNITA argues that specific clauses of the MPLA media law are simply unconstitutional and calls on the Court to issue a ruling to that effect.

The Angolan Constitution, rewritten in 2010, affirms the right to freedom of expression under Article 44 stating explicitly “Freedom of the press is guaranteed, and cannot be subjected to any prior censorship of a political, ideological or artistic nature.”

It goes on: “The state will ensure pluralism of expression and guarantee different ownership and editorial diversity in the media.

UNITA argues that the Constitution does not contemplate the possibility of any law attempting to restrict the freedom of the press.

The current legal set-up makes it impossible for any individual or organization other than a political party to make such a challenge, even though the new media laws are highly controversial and are contested by all but the state-run news organizations.

Many journalists see a sinister connection between the promulgation of the new media laws and the upcoming 2017 presidential elections in Angola but they see it as a ‘fait accompli’ by the government that will be nigh impossible to overturn.

“UNITA’s attempt to involve the Constitutional Court is unlikely to resolve the situation”, says Nok Nogueira, the editor of the weekly newspaper Novo Jornal. “It will be merely symbolic – and the outcome will be the same – because (the MPLA government) pulled off a conjuring trick that fooled the sovereign bodies, including the Constitutional Court which seems to have a very short-sighted vision of its role as an arbiter.”

Mr Nogueira thinks is strange that, “on the very eve of elections” the government would “insist on introducing a new legislative package on the media, with no explanation as to what was wrong with the laws passed only ten years earlier.”

He thinks if the laws truly needed revision, then journalists themselves should have had a greater role in the process. “We stood by and watched it all happen, and then some, and are only speaking out now when there is a clear situation which puts our profession at risk.” At the same time, the blame has to be shared by all the opposition parties who have seats in the Angolan parliament.

“Clearly they had no understanding of what was at stake.”

The Union of Angolan Journalists (Sindicato de Jornalistas Angolanos, SJA) says the government’s new Media laws have some positive aspects, for example in ending the monopoly of the state-run Angolan National Radio (Rádio Nacional de Angola, RNA) over national broadcasting.

But, the SJA says this was marred by the demand that any competitor for the national airwaves has to come up with 270 million Kwanzas for a permit, as well as the withdrawal of permission for community-based radio stations that were allowed under the previous legislation, but never granted.”

“Initiatives that confer greater guarantees of press freedom ultimately benefit the whole of society,” says Teixeira Cândido, the SJA president.

Meanwhile, compliance with the new law is obligatory and Nogueira sees no possibility of non-compliance even when parts are seen to be wholly unjust. “If the Law says step to the right, then that’s what we have to do, or find ourselves on the wrong side of the law.”

Restrictions on digital media are particularly onerous with criticism on social media likely to incur severe penalties. Under the previous legislation, only courts had the power to suspend the activities of media organizations. The new legislation has set up an administrative body in the ERCA that amounts to a media police force, with the powers to search, seize and immediately close down any person or organization it deems to be in breach of the rules, without need for any warrant or court proceedings.

In the case of Maka Angola, for example, publishing any whistleblower’s account of criminal activity by government officials could be deemed to be “defamatory” and lead to ERCA officials being able to demand entry to the Maka Angola editor’s home and seize any possessions they see fit to stop any further publication.