Andreia Reis examines the prosecution of Rafael Marques and how free speech has been constrained in Angola.
Rafael Marques is an Angolan journalist and human rights activist who created the anti-corruption watchdog group Maka Angola, which seeks to draw attention to the widespread poverty in the country that exists in spite of its vast natural resources and economic growth. Marques’ efforts and courage were recognised by a nomination for the Freedom of Expression Award, but in Angola, he was imprisoned in 1999 and later given a suspended sentence in 2015 under the defamation law for publications critical of the government.
Angola is a country rife with corruption. This can be traced back to its rough colonial past in which the Portuguese extracted its mineral wealth for three centuries. The difficulties of the country’s state-building can still be felt in the warped relationship that western oil companies and banks have with Angolan officials, its suspect links to China and the USA, the wealth of the president’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, uncovered by Marques and Kerry A. Dolan, and the country’s poor democratic record, with electoral corruption rife. According to Freedom House in 2013, Angola scored low in terms of both civil liberties and political rights. Yet, in economic terms, Angola has been one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Its GDP grew by an average of roughly 11 per cent per annum between 2002 and 2011, mainly as a result of oil extraction. At the same time, Angola was ranked among the 15 countries with the highest corruption, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
As well as oil, Angola is also famous for its diamond extraction, which Marques investigated. In his 2011 book, Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola, Marques accused nine generals of more than 100 killings and hundreds of cases of torture by security officials and employees of their private security company “Teleservice”. As a result, Marques was accused of criminal defamation and faced nine charges. In May 2014, the number of charges rose to 24.
Marques and his lawyers were able to negotiate an “informal” agreement with the government to avoid a trial. However, the agreement was revoked and Marques was convicted of defamation, sentenced to a six-months suspended imprisonment and fined £800,000. In addition, it was ordered that his book be taken off the market and internet, without the possibility of future publication or translation into other languages.
According to Dr. Justin Pearce, of Cambridge University, the reason behind both of Rafael Marques’ indictments was “wounded pride”. In 1999, the “wounded pride” was that of President Dos Santos as a result of Marques’ book, The Lipstick of the Dictatorship, which was a critique of the Dos Santos government that resulted in 43 days of incarceration, 11 of which were spent in a solitary confinement without food or water. Fearing for his authority, Dos Santos used Marques to display his power, punishing him and “discouraging others from attempting similar criticism”.
The second time, in 2015, the “wounded pride”, according to Pearce, was that of the generals, whose “violent and illegal business practices were being brought to public attention”. This tension probably extended to the political establishment with the intertwined political, military and economic power being exposed. According to Noel Kututwa, deputy director for southern Africa from Amnesty International, “the case against Rafael Marques de Morais demonstrated a sustained attack on an individual and the right to freedom of expression in Angola. He was being targeted for simply expressing his thoughts about societal wrongs in the country. This must stop”.
Defamation law in Angola has thus been used against free speech. It is not a case of censorship, because material has not been redacted or changed before its publication. Rather, the law has been used to punish people who have already published and to intimidate those that have any intention of doing so. This, of course, still constitutes a repressive strategy of the state. Marques’ defamation trial became a political prosecution.
Could social media be a weapon against the Angolan government’s limitations on free speech? According to Marques, the answer is no. In an interview with the Guardian, he stated that “ironically, with social media you have more people speaking out through networks, but they’re not articulating information that can be of greater benefit to the public”. For Pearce, free speech in Angola cannot be increased by social media, but the latter can be a tool that allows people to defy the lack of freedom. Although free speech in the country depends on a variety of factors, it is clear that under the current regime, improvements are unlikely to be made in this regard.
Rafael Marques’ story has far from a happy ending, but he was able to “negotiate” with the generals to “allow him to do his work”. This “negotiation” consisted in Marques recognising that the generals were not aware of their employees’ violations of human rights; and that the generals retreated from the area in which the atrocities took place. It can be suspected that this “deal” is one more partial and unfair reaction of the Angolan government.
Andreia Reis is a PhD student in King’s College London. Her area of interest in political science is corruption and institutions.