A court in Luanda, Angola's capital, today acquitted investigative journalist Rafael Marques and editor Mariano Bras on accusations of insulting the state, a huge victory for press freedom in a country where the media have often been targets of government repression.
The two journalists were charged on June 21, 2017 with "outrage to a body of sovereignty and injury against public authority," under Angola's Law on Crimes against State Security, after publishing an article about an alleged illegal land acquisition involving the attorney general, João Maria de Sousa.
The article - first published on Marques' website MakaAngola in November 2016 and re-published by O Crime, edited by Bras - alleged that de Sousa unlawfully acted as a property and real estate developer in addition to his official duties. It also suggested that former President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos supported the attorney general's actions.
State prosecutors argued that the journalists acted in bad faith and violated the ethical principles of journalism. But the judge disagreed.
In reading the almost three-hour long verdict, judge Josina Ferreira Falcão highlighted the importance of public servants being exposed to criticism and scrutiny. "This court believes that we would be doing very bad as a society that wants to progress, if we punished the messengers of bad news," she said.
The unexpected ruling is a victory for freedom of the press in a country where the media has been on a tight leash, with authorities often repressing coverage of cases of corruption involving government officials, through intimidation and abusive use of defamation laws.
On January 23, 2017, then-President Dos Santos signed a media law that limits freedom of expression, despite opposition from the journalist's union and rights groups. The Angolan union of journalists called the law "a political tool to intimidate the press."
Following today's historic court ruling, the Angolan government should now go further and seek to amend the 2017 media law so that journalists are able to do their jobs in a free environment.