Three journalists given suspended sentences

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New York, October 30, 2000 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today condemned the decision by the Supreme Court of Angola to impose harsh sentences on three journalists prosecuted for defaming government officials, including President José Eduardo Dos Santos.

On October 27, a Supreme Court spokesman announced the conviction of journalists Rafael Marques, Gustavo Costa, and Aguiar dos Santos to prison terms ranging from two months to eight months, and fines ranging from US$2,000 to US$3,000. While the prison sentences in the three cases were suspended, the court specifically ruled that Marques may not speak publicly, publish his journalistic work, or travel outside Angola for a period of five years, according to reports of the announcement. If Marques violates any of these terms during the next five years, the prison sentence would be enforced.

The Supreme Court decision appears to be full of irregularities and inconsistencies. Notably, Marques was apparently sentenced for an entirely different offense from the one that prompted his trial and conviction last spring. Originally prosecuted for defaming President dos Santos in a July 1999 article, Marques was sentenced instead by the Supreme Court for “abuse of press freedom” under Article 43 and Article 45 of the June 1991 Press Code.

Neither the accused nor their lawyers were informed of the decision in advance, according to local sources, and the Supreme Court has yet to release its written judgment to the public.

“The Supreme Court action is disturbing and baffling,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “This ruling does not appear to conform to Angolan law. Nor does it reflect the positive view, expressed by Angolan officials to a CPJ delegation earlier this month, that Angola would seriously consider easing its use of prison sentences to punish and intimidate journalists.”

The six-member delegation, led by CPJ and including representatives of ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch, completed its four-day visit to Angola on October 4 with a statement calling for an end to criminal penalties for all defamation-related offenses.

Cooper called on the Supreme Court to make the written version of its ruling public immediately, in order to clarify details of the judgment. “From the court’s verbal explanation, this ruling appears to be full irregularities,” said Cooper.

According to press reports, the Supreme Court singled out Rafael Marques for the stiffest penalties. In addition to the six-month jail sentence, suspended for five years, Marques was ordered to pay a fine of US$3,000. Marques was also ordered to pay the court US$3.70 a day for six months to cover the costs of his case, according to local press accounts. He is barred from traveling, publishing, or speaking in public for the duration of the five-year probationary period.

The case against Marques arose from an article about dos Santos entitled “The Lipstick Of Dictatorship,” which appeared in the private weekly Agora in July 1999.

The Supreme Court sentenced Agora publisher Aguiar dos Santos (no relation to the president) to two months in jail, suspended for three years, plus a fine of US$2,000. Dos Santos was also ordered to pay court expenses for his case. The charges against the publisher were based on his editorial “Loneliness, Power and Succession,” which ran in the August 20, 1999, edition of Agora. In the article, dos Santos described the president as a “manipulator” with a “Machiavellian” approach to government.

A third journalist, Gustavo Costa, received an eight-month jail term, suspended for two years, and a fine of US$2,000 for allegedly defaming chief presidential advisor Jose Leitao in an April 1999 editorial for the Portuguese newspaper Expresso, in which the journalist charged Leitao with embezzling state funds.

Unlike Marques, the sentencing terms against both dos Santos and Costa do not ban them from travel, publishing, and speaking in public.

The recent Supreme Court ruling came seven months after Marques and Aguiar dos Santos appealed initial sentences handed down on March 31 by the Provincial Court of Luanda, in which Marques was condemned to six months in prison and a fine of US$16,000. Dos Santos received a two-month prison sentence and a fine of US$6,000 on the same charges. Both journalists were then released on US$200 bail each.