7 September 2012

Angola: Civil War Over but Journos Still Fight for Civil Rights


If anyone thought that the end of Angola's long civil war in 2002 improve civil rights for the people, then think again. Just take a look at the media situation - nothing has improved at all.

Two major free speech organizations, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, recorded assaults, police raids on editorial offices, intimidation, harassment, violence, fines and prison sentences in 2010 and 2011. This year has been no different.

"It's actually gotten worse since the end of the war," says Rafael Marques de Morais, Angola's best-known investigative journalist. "In 2010, the government took over the independent weekly newspapers through a proxy company. So now the editors have to send their layout to the censors, who will take out articles they deem unfriendly to the regime - and demand a replacement."

The only weekly left is Folha 8, an old and respected but very small operation. Its founder and editor, William Tonet, is constantly subjected to what can only be described as judicial harassment. In October 2011, a judge convicted him of criminal libel and gave him a suspended one-year prison sentence, which Tonet is appealing. There are several similar cases against him still pending and the police have a habit of raiding the Folha 8 office and taking away the computers.

Tonet's crime? Exposing corruption and self-enrichment, which is endemic in Angola's ruling circles.

Jail time

"The government has a history of throwing me in jail," Marques observes drily, a reference to his run-in with the authorities over an article he wrote in 1999. The piece was a ferocious attack on the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos (still in power today) and its corrupt, war-mongering ways. Marques was arrested and spent almost two months in prison, where the conditions can be life-threatening.

If anything, jail time strengthened Marques' resolve to continue with his work. Speaking from capital city Luanda on the phone - the line was clearly bugged - Marques explained why. "I believe that for democracy to thrive in Angola, the most critical element is to provide information to the people so they can make better decisions. The constitution of this country guarantees freedom of expression. And as a citizen it is my duty to fulfil that constitutional premise."

And then Marques provided a striking statistic. "In Luanda, a city of six million, the biggest weekly prints just 8,000 copies at the most," he said. This has to do with literacy levels and spending power. Almost all of Angola's citizens live on less than a dollar a day, while a tiny elite can afford luxury mansions and a jet set lifestyle.

Greedy elite

I myself have an unforgettable image from the capital. Between a brand-new luxury car parked at a crossroads and the glittering facade of a shop that would not be out of place in Manhattan, sits, totally ignored, a filthy beggar. He was a war veteran who had lost his limbs after stepping on a landmine. Unsurprisingly, in 2012, the war veterans are getting angry. They want pensions and disability pay. The police have been ordered to stop their protests.

The greed-fuelled dishonesty of the country's elites has ensured that Angola - blessed with oil, diamonds, fertile lands and an ongoing construction boom - is one of the most unequal societies on the planet.

"I had written a book on corruption," recalls Marques. "And there were just so many cases; I needed to share this information with Angolans. That's how the website came into being."

Arab Spring in Angola?

The website Marques refers to is Maka Angola, which exposes all manner of wrongdoing. It is part of a small but growing movement of citizens who want to stop the plunder. Their medium of communication has become the internet.

As Marques puts it: "The internet has become the main source of news for people, just like in the Arab countries. It reaches more people than the traditional media."

So can we expect an Arab Spring in Angola? Well, first, protest here predates events in the Middle East. And second, the government has proved extremely adept at stifling it. But sooner or later, something will have to give.

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