Our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman shares the experience of Rafael Marques de Morais who has been facing charges in Angola, having provided an account of the corruption that surrounds the country’s oil industry. He also explores what these ongoing trials can tell us about the state of the nation more broadly.
One of my former students, Rafael Marques de Morais, is currently on trial in Angola. His crime? To write a book that detailed the corruption of Angolan military generals. It is now clear that he is not getting a fair trial in a country that has yet to experience genuine democratization. His experience reveals the dark side of the Angolan oil boom, and the incredible risks that some people take for the love of their country.
Rafael Marques de Morais did not immediately stand out as a man willing to take on an entire state. When he arrived at Oxford University to read for the African Studies MSc he was quiet and unassuming, not pushy and opinionated. Appearances can be deceiving. Over the length of the course, we came to know of his determination to fight against corruption and democratic backsliding in his home country, which came to be the subject of his dissertation. Always respectful, always thoughtful, and extremely bright, Rafael quickly won the respect and friendship of his fellow students and tutors.
But although he had been working as a journalist since 1992, it was only when Rafael left Oxford to return to Angola and continue his campaign that I realised how courageous he really was – how much steely determination lay behind that calm exterior. In the face of constant harassment he has taken on the thankless task of speaking the truth to power. From the time he returned home until his arrest he was a one-man news service, providing monthly updates on everything from strikes at the Angolan National Radio to political violence and fresh corruption scandals. I was proud to publish some of his work on this website, and you can see some of Rafael’s recent work on his excellent website, www.makaangola.org.
Investigative journalism is not an easy job in any country, but is even harder in a country like Angola. Freedom House, the American think tank, rates Angola’s political system as ‘not free’ with only a ‘partly free’ internet and a ‘not free’ media. The organization’s report on the state of the press makes for alarming reading. Its latest report from 2014 concluded that ‘Laws regarding state security and insult hamper the free activities of the media’, and found that ‘The government has used these laws to harass members of the independent media, with journalists William Tonet and Rafael Marques de Morais facing regular pressure for their efforts to expose corruption and human rights violations.’
Despite these challenges, Rafael refused to be silenced. In 2011, he published a book entitled Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola in which he accused military officers of complicity in torture and other human rights abuses, and documented a process of collusion between state officials and private mining companies. In November 2012, nine generals responded by filing a criminal defamation complaint against Rafael and the publisher in Portugal. However, this strategy failed, because the Portuguese prosecutor concluded that his intention had been ‘not to offend but to inform’ and threw the case out.
Unfortunately, it did not take long for new lawsuits to be filed in both Portugal and Angola. After long delays, the Angola case is now being heard. Early on, it was clear that Rafael could expect a fair trial. According to the journalist Kerry Dolan, who has worked with Rafael in the past, ‘The judge allowed a line of questioning to Marques that makes no sense whatsoever’, most notably by allowing prosecutors to interrogate Rafael about whether or not he had personally seen military generals committing murders or torture. The fallacy of this line of argument was that Rafael’s book made no such claim. His point was not that military leaders had personally committed the atrocities, but rather that ‘the generals are the owners of private security companies that protected the diamond mines, and that employees of these companies killed and tortured villagers’.
But truth and consistency are sadly lacking in the Angolan court system. It therefore came as something of a surprise when Rafael reached an out-of-court settlement with his accusers on Thursday 21 May. In return for agreeing not to re-print the book and acknowledging that he had not made direct contact with the generals while conducting his research, he was allowed to walk free. This was an unexpected victory of sorts. The book is already widely available and so re-printing it was unnecessary, while there was no challenge to Rafael’s account of the killings and torture that lay at the heart of the court case. But just a few days later, Rafael was informed that the public prosecutor had decided to renege on his promise to drop the defamation charges, and had instead set out to find him guilty, with a 30 day jail sentence. It is unclear exactly what changed between Thursday and Monday. Some have suggested that this change of heart is the result of a belated attempt by the Angolan state to save face. Rafael himself has said that the prosecutor appears to have changed his mind on a whim.
Although the prospect of a custodial sentence came as a shock to Rafael and his supporters around the world, his courage remains undimmed. We should have expected nothing less from a man who is no stranger to Angolan jails. From 1999 onwards, Rafael has been arrested a number of times, at one point being held for forty days without charges, during which time he was not allowed to contact his family or his lawyers. At the trial, in which he was charged with abusing the press for having insulted the president, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined US$17,000. That trial, like the current one, was not fair. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American-based organization, condemned the proceedings, and mounting international criticism led the Angolan Supreme Court to suspend his jail sentence. However, he was still ordered to pay the president damages, and had his passport confiscated.
Despite this flagrant intimidation, Rafael continued to investigate and expose wrongdoing. This inspirational determination, along with his great talent as a journalist, has already been recognized by a number of respected bodies. In 2006, Rafael received the Civil Courage Prize from the Northcote Parkinson Fund, which recognises ‘steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk’. More recently, an article that he wrote with Darcy on the billions of dollars of assets amassed by Isabel dos Santos – the president’s daughter, considered by Forbes to be the richest woman in Africa – won a Gerald Loeb Award in June 2014 for international reporting. One year later, Rafael also won a Freedom of Expression award from the Index of Censorship, a British organization that promotes free expression.
As I write, Rafael remains at great risk. We have already seen that international protests can help to protect journalists from unfair treatment, even in authoritarian contexts such as Angola. I am therefore joining forces with my colleagues at Oxford University, Human Rights Ways, Amnesty International, Transparency International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Rafael’s friends around the world to send the following open letter to President dos Santos of Angola.
Dear President dos Santos,
We, the undersigned individuals and organizations, are writing to you to express our strong concerns about the prosecution on criminal defamation charges of journalist Rafael Marques de Morais. Despite what was understood to have been a negotiated agreement between Mr. Marques de Morais and government authorities late last week, we are deeply concerned that that agreement is now being reversed. Instead, it appears that the court will issue a verdict in the case later this week; a conviction could result in a prison sentence and the indefinite revocation of his passport.
This case reflects a broader deterioration in the environment for freedom of expression in Angola, including the increasing use of criminal defamation lawsuits against journalists and routine police abuse of, and interference with, journalists, activists, and protesters peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. We urge you to take immediate steps to reverse these worrying trends.
Mr. Marques de Morais has been regularly and repeatedly harassed by state authorities because of his work. The 24 criminal defamation charges lodged against Marques, for example, are only the latest attempt by Angolan officials to silence his reporting. Marques has alleged a range of high-level corruption cases and human rights violations in his blog, and pursued sensitive investigations into human rights violations in Angola’s diamond areas. We are unaware of any serious effort by the Angolan attorney-general’s office to impartially and credibly investigate the allegations of the crimes for which he has been charged.
Your government appears to be using Angola’s criminal defamation laws to deter Mr. Marques de Morais 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 prosecution of Mr. Marques de Morais also stands in opposition to the December 2014 judgment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which ruled in the case of Lohé Issa Konaté v. Burkina Faso that except in very serious and exceptional circumstances, “violations of laws on freedom speech and the press cannot be sanctioned by custodial sentences.” Laws criminalizing defamation, whether of public or private individuals, should never be applied, including in these circumstances given that Marques was raising concerns about human rights abuses in the country’s diamond mines. Criminal defamation laws are open to easy abuse, as the case against Marques demonstrates, resulting in disproportionately harsh consequences. As repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries shows, such laws are not necessary for protecting reputations.
We strongly urge you to take immediate steps to make clear that the government of Angola respects the right of journalists, activists, and others to enjoy their right to freedom of expression. Furthermore we encourage you to immediately pursue efforts to abolish Angola’s criminal defamation laws.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.
Dr Nic Cheeseman
Associate Professor in African Studies, Oxford University
I know that some people reading this will be moved to want to support Rafael, especially those who have themselves taken risks to expose the abuse of power in other African countries where corruption remains rife. If you would like to join us and endorse the letter to President dos Santos, please go to Rafael’s facebook page at www.facebook.com/rafael.marquesdemorais and post a message of support. Very few people are brave enough to take on the risks that he has done in order to protect their countries from abusive government. It is therefore all the more important that we support Rafael, and others like him.