Acclaimed journalist Marques de Morais on trial for defamation in Angola

On Tuesday, less than a week after receiving an award for his journalism from the London-based freedom of expression group Index on Censorship, veteran journalist Rafael Marques de Morais will stand trial in Angola on charges of criminal defamation.

The trial follows claims made by Marques de Morais in his book Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola. Published in Portugal in 2011, it documents allegations of murders, torture, forced displacement of civilian settlements, and intimidation of inhabitants of the diamond-mining areas of the Lundas region of Angola, which was a Portuguese colony until 1975. In the book, the journalist claimed that guards from a private security firm and members of the Angolan military were responsible for the torture and killings, according to news reports.

After the book was published, seven Angolan generals filed a criminal defamation suit against Marques de Morais in Portugal. In February 2013, the Portuguese Prosecution Service chose not to pursue the case, with the prosecutor stating “the author’s intention is clearly not to offend but to inform,” according to news reports.

In April 2013 the Organized Crime Unit of Angola’s national police notified Marques de Morais that he had been indicted on charges of defamation in January. The Committee to Protect Journalists, with a number of other organizations, wrote to the Angolan attorney general João Maria de Sousa, calling for the charges to be dropped.

In August 2013, CPJ joined other groups in a letter to the African Union’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression Pansy Tlakula and special rapporteur on human rights defenders Reine Alapini-Gansou, asking them to urge Angola to halt the case. The letter highlighted how the proceedings are a violation of Marques de Morais’ human rights, in particular those protected by articles in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), a non-government organization that provides legal defense for independent media, filed an urgent update to the appeal earlier this month.

In December, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights delivered a landmark ruling that no journalist should be imprisoned for criminal defamation–a judgment binding on all members of the African Union, which includes Angola. The judgment upheld an appeal to the continent’s highest court by the Burkinabe journalist Lohé Issa Konaté against his 2012 conviction for criminal defamation. The editor of L’Ouragan, who was sentenced to one year in jail for reporting on allegations of corruption and abuse by the state prosecutor in Burkina Faso, is now entitled to compensation and Burkina Faso will have to change its criminal defamation laws, according to MLDI, which represented Konaté.

Although Angola is a member of the African Union, and its constitution guarantees freedom of expression, a report released this month by the International Federation for Human Rights, which represents more than 170 human rights groups around the world, found that journalists and human rights defenders there are subject to “judicial and administrative harassment, acts of intimidation, threats and other forms of restrictions to their freedom of association and expression.” As well as Marques de Morais, other independent journalists have faced criminal defamation charges, according to CPJ research.

Marques de Morais has long been the subject of state harassment by Angolan authorities. In 2000 he was forbidden to leave the country after a conviction for defaming President José Eduardo dos Santos in a 1999 article, according to CPJ research. The action prompted CPJ to write a letter of protest to the president. The Angolan Supreme Court suspended Marques de Morais’ six-month sentence but confiscated his passport until February 2001, news reports said.

Much of Marques de Morais’ reporting is published on Maka Angola, an initiative he funds and directs himself, which is dedicated to “the struggle against corruption and to the defense of democracy in Angola.” Although his book was published exclusively in Portugal, Marques de Morais told the British daily, the Independent, he is taking 200 copies to Angola to distribute before his trial in the capital, Luanda, and that the book was being made freely available to download or read online in Angola.