CPJ Delegation Criticizes Angola on Press Freedom: Urges government to “reconsider” draft press law

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Bill Threatens Press Freedom in Angola, (Sept. 13)

Luanda, October 4, 2000 — In response to an increase in repressive measures against the Angolan media over the past two years, a six-member delegation of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today completed four days of consultations with journalists and legal experts in Luanda.

The delegation endorsed the widespread view, expressed by legal experts and both state and independent journalists in Angola, that the government should reconsider a draft press law unveiled in July.

“The draft law is seriously flawed and should be withdrawn,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper, a member of the delegation. “Any future press legislation should be developed transparently, in consultation with lawyers, state and independent journalists, and other members of civil society.”

While noting favorably the government’s decision to submit the draft law for public comment, most of the journalists and lawyers who spoke with the delegation called the proposal a serious threat to press freedom.

All of them argued that the government should not impose jail sentences in defamation cases. Over the past year, several Angolan journalists have been convicted on defamation charges and sentenced to prison.

The ability to report freely on events in Angola is essential to assisting the development of civil society and democratically resolving problems. Although the 1991 Angolan constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, journalists have been subject to reprisals for reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption or draft dodging.

The members of the delegation are: CPJ executive director Ann Cooper; CPJ board member Peter Arnett; Fernando Lima of the Mozambique-based press collective Mediacoop; Pamela Dube of The Sunday Independent in South Africa; Njonjo Mue of ARTICLE 19; and Alex Vines of Human Rights Watch.

Among the specific findings and recommendations that the delegation conveyed to the government in a lengthy meeting today with Vice Minister of Social
Communications Manuel Augusto were the following:

  • The government should withdraw the draft press law. Although there has been public debate about the proposal, its current form reflects only the concerns of the government. Any new effort to draft a press law should be part of a fully transparent process that includes all interested parties, including journalists from state and independent media.
  • The fundamental flaw in the government’s draft law is that it would continue and increase the use of criminal penalties (instead of just civil penalties) resulting in the threat of lengthy jail sentences and severe fines for defamation. There is a growing consensus among international legal experts that statutes which define defamation as a criminal offense violate international law, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Criminal defamation statutes are incompatible with the most basis standards of freedom of the press and have a chilling effect on journalists.
  • The delegation strongly urged the Angolan government to drop all current criminal defamation cases against journalists, including cases now on appeal. The delegation would welcome such a positive gesture by the government as a sign of its commitment to implementing international human rights standards.
  • The delegation has noted that Angola’s constitutional freedom of expression guarantees are particularly violated in provincial areas such as Malanje and Kwanza-Norte, where governors Manuel Pacavira and Flavio Fernandes have frequently used their administrative powers to punish local journalists for their reporting.
  • The delegation called on the government to give a full accounting of the status of investigations into the assassination of Angolan journalists in the 1990s, and make every effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In their meeting with Social Communications Vice Minister Augusto today, the delegation stressed its particular concern for the safety of provincial journalists, who are extremely vulnerable to pressure from local officials.

“It was a full discussion, and we hope it will continue,” noted Cooper. “While the government did not make any specific commitments, it did not reject the ideas that we raised. In particular, we would like to see progress in terms of greater protection for provincial journalists and in eliminating laws that threaten the ability of journalists to work freely.”

Delegation members hope to meet with a presidential spokesman tomorrow morning and will present more detailed findings in a report that will be submitted to the Angolan government.