Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques has received a six month suspended sentence after a court found him guilty of defaming seven Angolan generals in his book “Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola.” This disappointing turn of events comes despite an out-of-court agreement between Rafael and government authorities that saw the generals withdraw their complaints of defamation against Rafael. The agreement dispensed with the need for a court trial, but rather than drop all charges, the authorities slapped Rafael with a six month suspended prison sentence. Mr. Marques believes that this was done in bad faith. The absence of a trial denied Mr Marques the opportunity to present a full defense, and also allowed the generals to avoid testifying, thereby exposing more details of the case to the public.
Media rights organizations believe that Marques’ sentencing presents a huge blow to freedom of expression, and clearly demonstrates the abuse of criminal defamation laws to deter journalists from pursuing stories that expose wrongdoing in Angola. Marques is one of a handful of Angola’s investigative journalists who has over the years uncovered major scandals. In a letter to Angolan president José dos Santos, written before Marques’ sentencing, a group of civil society organizations noted “your government appears to be using Angola’s criminal defamation laws to deter Mr. Marques from his human rights reporting. By doing so, the government is violating his right to freedom of expression as protected by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Preventing him from reporting on human rights violations is contrary to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.” The organizations called on the Angolan president to take steps to reverse worrying trends in the country that have seen journalists face increased police harassment and interference, as well as criminal defamation lawsuits.
Mr. Marques’ sentence leaves him vulnerable to a prison term over the next two years, and adds challenges to his work as a journalist, which involves monitoring corruption and human rights abuses in Angola. The global media community is clearly behind Mr. Marques as he fights this verdict, urging governments everywhere to respect the rights of journalists to practice in an environment conducive for a free media. His trial has focused the world’s attention on Angola’s practice with regards to media freedom, and casts the country in a negative light. As the people of Angola focus on building a strong economy amidst various social and policy challenges, African Media Initiative urges authorities in Luanda to take necessary action to reinforce universal freedoms that all citizens are entitled to, including freedom of the press and the right to information.