22 August 2018

Africa: Speaking Truth to Power - Angola's Leading Online News Site Club K Tracks Corruption and Human Rights Abuses

Africa's diaspora produced news websites allow people in tightly controlled and/or corrupt states to know what's actually happening in their country. Russell Southwood spoke to Jose Gama, Club-K about covering the dos Santos kleptocracy and how his news site has survived for eight years.

In terms of corruption, Angola often seems to match Nigeria for the huge, oil-fuelled sums that go walkabout. The changeover from President Jose dos Santos to current President Joao Lourenco has opened a window on the kleptocracy of the dos Santos family. Son Zenu dos Santos sent US$500 million to a Credit Suisse account with the help of the former Central Bank Governor. The money has subsequently been retrieved.

His sister, the businesswomen Isabelle so Santos sent US$40 million from Sonangol (the state oil company her father had appointed her to) to a company she owned before being sacked by the new Government. No charges have been bought against her. She is owner of the country's main Pay TV channel Zap TV.

In 2012 at the height of the Arab Spring, the Government's secret service killed two human rights activists who were calling for a democracy demonstration. Eventually after much protest, two secret service agents were convicted by the Courts but neither told the courts who gave the order. The President subsequently fired his spy boss.

For eight years, a small, self-funded online newspaper called Club-K has both chronicled and fought the corruption and human rights abuses of the Government. The online newspaper operates from outside of Angola so "we can be more independent. We don't have to worry about the red lines".

"The previous President dos Santos approved a law that meant the police could confiscate your computer. It's safer from outside. We don't think the new President will use these methods. He's doing things completely differently. He owned shares in two private banks so he sold those shares. He quit his construction business. He wants to set an example".

The online site attracts more than 60,000 unique users, the majority of whom come from inside the country. It also has 170,000 followers on its Facebook page:"Many people in Angola are using the Internet. They can read Club-K from their smartphone. There are few news sites specializing in news from Angola".

One of the advantages of the Internet, is that it is very easy to produce an online news site from almost anywhere:"With an online newspaper, you can write it anywhere, even at home, even in this garden and publish. I've got volunteers who send me stories. I get tips about things like construction in the wrong place. They will go and shoot a picture. But publicly I've got one guy there".

So what's the business model?:"I used to have a lot of advertisements but most of the company owners are linked to the Government and the ruling party. Managers in companies (responsible for advertising) came under pressure from their owners, who were saying 'we don't want anything to do with these people'. We don't have a sponsor. I have an events company in Angola, a family company but we are self-financed".

He has very few competitors online:"Last month there was a survey that showed that we were the most read online news site for Angola. There's another web site called Maga Angola (which is Kimbundu for problem or trouble) which is occasional and more focused on corruption. I think ours came out best because we always have fresh news. We have good sources. We know in advance when Ministers are fired. We uncover corruption and human rights violations".

On the print side, there is Jornal de Angola which is Government owned and Jornal o Pais which is owned by the same person who owns the private TV channel TV Zimbo and which Gama says is "good".

Like every other online content producer he's struggling with his reader's attention span:" In the future, I hope to improve and to be publishing regular videos. People are busy and don't have the time to read long stories: it's a case of a video of 2-3 minutes vs 10-15 minutes reading a long piece. That's going to be a great challenge in the future".

He believes that print does not have a rosy future:"Print will continue to diminish. There used to be between 7-9 printed newspapers in Angola but the Government took them over. They used to survive on advertising but all the companies are associated with the Government and nearly all provide services to the state".

"Before the 2012 elections these newspapers were critical of the Government so they removed all the advertising creating business problems for them. After that, Government friends took over the newspapers. The editorial lines of the newspapers changed but they went downhill. That was the strategy the Government used".

The life of an online editor, even as an occasional visitor to his home country, has been a tough one:"In 2014 I went to Angola and they charged me with abuse of freedom of speech and refused to let me leave the country. In the end after a lot of pressure they said you can leave the country but don't write about this. The former Attorney Journal would charge anyone who criticized the President with defamation against the Head of State". Maybe one day it will be safe enough to run an online news site from Luanda but for the moment he's continuing to publish outside of Angola.

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