Attacks on the Press 2003: Angola

Since the death of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), brought an end to Angola’s civil war in 2002, the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has become somewhat more tolerant of the independent press. Journalists say the climate has improved, but problems remain. State media are still dominant, and the independent press is limited almost exclusively to the capital, Luanda. In 2003, the government continued to drag its heels on new media legislation and to block the spread of Catholic Church-owned Radio Ecclésia to the provinces.

President José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in office since 1979, promised in 2001 that he would step down at the time of the next general election. However, he was quoted in November 2003 as saying that the issue of his candidacy was “an open question within the [MPLA] party.” In December, the MPLA-dominated Congress re-elected Dos Santos unopposed as the head of the party, which analysts interpreted as a sign he would run again. Dos Santos came under opposition pressure to hold elections in 2004, but he said it would take two years to prepare the country for polls. By year’s end, no date for the elections had been set.

Journalists say corruption, especially in relation to Angola’s oil and diamond resources, is one of the most sensitive subjects for the media. According to the International Monetary Fund, billions of dollars have disappeared from state coffers in recent years. The advocacy group Transparency International ranked Angola as one of the countries perceived as most corrupt in the world, with only Nigeria ranking higher in Africa. However, U.S. President George W. Bush brought Angola into the group of African countries that enjoy liberal trade terms under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Thirty-seven out of 48 sub-Saharan African countries made the list for 2004, and two (Eritrea and Central African Republic) were removed. A White House spokesman said the list of countries with access to the special trade terms reflected the degree to which nations were progressing toward market-based economies and the rule of law.

Angola’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the government often falls short of respecting it, and the independent media continued to report threats and harassment. For example, in February, when Jorge Artur Tunda Catende, of the Luanda-based independent Folha 8 weekly, went to interview Tourism Minister Jorge Alicerces Valentim about allegations of wrongdoing at the ministry, he was detained for 34 days before being released without charge. Instead of getting the interview he had been promised, Catende said that Valentim referred him to an “Ad-Hoc Commission,” which demanded that he submit questions in writing and come back the next day. As he was leaving the ministry, Catende said that Valentim called him into his office and accused him of stealing US$400 from the minister. Catende said he was taken to the National Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DNIC), interrogated, and accused of stealing, even though he had no money on him. Upon his release, Catende lodged a criminal complaint, which was still pending at year’s end.

Journalists say the most important independent news outlet in Angola is the popular Radio Ecclésia, which the Catholic Church owns and operates. The station, which broadcasts 24 hours a day on FM in the Luanda area, carries news and debates in which members of the public can participate. The Information Ministry once called Radio Ecclésia “terrorist radio” after a listener said on air that Angola’s real problem was the president. In the wake of the 2002 peace agreement ending Angola’s civil war, Radio Ecclésia received support from foreign donors to expand broadcasting to the provinces. Journalists said technical preparations were complete, but that at the end of 2003, the government was still refusing permission for the station to broadcast outside Luanda.

Foreign radio services such as Voice of America (VOA) and the BBC have staff in Angola. VOA has a limited FM service in Portuguese, and the BBC, which is only available on shortwave, has been negotiating with the Angolan government for five years for permission to set up an FM transmitter. According to sources at the BBC in London, the Angolan government’s official reason for the lengthy negotiations is that it has to change the country’s press law to make foreign ownership of a radio station legal. However, journalists suspect that the government is reluctant to open up to outside broadcasters.

Speaking at the MPLA’s congress in December, Dos Santos promised that a new press law would be approved “in due time,” and that it would allow for the possibility of private television stations. The government has been promising a more liberal press law for three years.