ANGOLAN BILL THREATENS PRESS FREEDOM Journalists face up to eight years in jail for criticizing the president

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New York, September 11, 2000— A draft Angolan press law poses a grave threat to press freedom in that country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has conducted an analysis of the bill made public in July of this year by Angolan social communications minister Hendrik Vaal Neto. [Read the bill]

While Vaal Neto described the proposed bill as a “decisive step in the process of consolidating” Angolan democracy, CPJ’s analysis of the text shows that clauses relating to state security, military or state secrets, and criminal libel would put new restrictions on the ability of journalists to report the news.

Under the proposed legislation, defamation is a criminal offense punishable by lengthy jail sentences and severe fines. Even more ominously, under Article 57 it is a crime punishable by two to eight years in prison to “publish, disseminate or reproduce news or facts of the national or foreign press, which attack the honor and reputation of the President of the Republic.” In cases involving defamation of the president of Angola, foreign heads of state, or their representatives, Article 58 bars judges from admitting the so-called truth defense.

Similar statutes contained in the current law (“Lei de Imprensa” of June 1991) have been used repeatedly to prosecute Angolan journalists who have criticized President José Eduardo dos Santos or questioned his policies.

“We call on the Angolan government to withdraw the proposed press law from consideration by the National Assembly,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “If passed, this law will make it practically impossible for journalists in Angola to cover any matter relating to the country’s political life without risking incarceration.”

According to a growing body of international law, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, statutes that define defamation as a criminal offense violate the most basic standards for freedom of expression. Such statutes have a chilling effect on expression because they allow leaders to use prison sentences, or the threat of imprisonment, to stifle criticism and public debate.

In a democracy, public officials, particularly the head of state, must tolerate criticism, even caustic criticism. Far from allowing such criticism, the proposed legislation would give the president of Angola and other public officials special protection under the law. CPJ therefore urges Angolan authorities to revise the press law so that defamation and libel become civil, rather than criminal, offenses.

The proposed press law also introduces a welter of regulations that could greatly impede the ability of journalists to work freely. For instance, the bill grants government authorities the right to decide who is a journalist (Article 78), and to seize or ban publications at their discretion (Article 25). It also prescribes prison sentences for Angolan reporters who quote facts published by foreign media that “attack the honor and decorum” of Angolan state officials. A special clause, Article 62, authorizes Angolan courts to ban foreign publications “if they place public order at risk, violate individual rights on repeated occasions, or incite … crime.”

Among other proposed articles that threaten the ability of journalists to work freely in Angola are the following:

Article 49, which bans the unlawful disclosure of “state or military secrets.” For the purposes of the proposed bill, a military secret is defined as “news or information pertaining to the preparation of internal or external defense of the State, the preparation of military campaigns by the armed forces and their strategy, military techniques and the composition of the forces and their respective itineraries.” Those who violate this provision face a punishment of up to eight years in prison. A footnote to the article states that the court sentence may “be aggravated in general terms if the crime is committed in times of war.”

Article 50, which bars “subversion of the political and social order” including the promotion of “war propaganda, or the actions of armed rebellion or separatist groups … ” This offense is punishable by a prison term of between eight and 12 years and a fine, “if no heavier punishment fits the crime.”

Article 53, which prohibits the publication of “false news, unfounded rumors, or distorted facts” likely to cause despondency, especially in “the banking or financial system.” Journalists convicted under Article 53 face an unspecified “heavy” prison term, coupled with a fine.

Article 54, under which offending “public morals and good habits” is a crime punishable by two to eight years in prison, plus a fine.

Under the new law, publishers can be held liable in defamation cases involving one or more of their reporters. If a reporter is convicted of defamation, the publisher can be fined (though not jailed) for the same offense. Moreover, the law allows judges to suspend editors for up to three years after three adverse court rulings within the previous three years.

While Article 35 of the Angolan Constitution states that “freedom of expression [… ] may not be subject to any censorship, especially political, ideological, or artistic,” Article 23 of the proposed bill requires news organizations to adopt a so-called editorial statute “which clearly defines their orientation and objectives.” The editorial statute, which must be reprinted at the start of every calendar year, is to be submitted to the authorities within ten days of its publication.

“We urge Angolan authorities to withdraw the proposed press law and to work openly with journalists, legislators, and the general public to develop an adequate law that protects rather than punishes critical journalism,” said Cooper. “In order to meet international standards regarding press freedom, any new legislation must at a minimum eliminate criminal penalties for defamation, including criticism of public officials, and remove restrictions imposed in the name of ‘state security.’ The proposed law fails on all counts.”