New York, June 30, 2022 – Angolan authorities should drop criminal defamation and insult investigations into journalists Escrivão José, Óscar Constantino, and Fernando Caetano and ensure that investigative journalism is not criminalized, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
The three journalists each told CPJ that they are facing ongoing legal processes over criminal defamation and insult complaints about their work.
“The spate of spurious criminal defamation cases against journalists in Angola shows that politicians and powerful figures are allergic to public scrutiny and are taking advantage of colonial-era laws to criminalize journalism,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in Johannesburg, South Africa. “Prosecutors must stop pandering to elites who want to keep citizens in the dark and should refuse to entertain such cases in line with a 2010 resolution by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights urging African Union members states to abolish criminal defamation and insult laws.”
Convictions for criminal defamation carry prison terms of up to 1.5 years and a fine set by a judge; insult convictions carry one year and a fine, according to the penal code and Nelson Custódio, a local lawyer who represents both Caetano and Constantino, and who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. CPJ has recently reported on several other criminal defamation cases against journalists in Angola.
On June 6, investigators with the police criminal investigation service in the capital, Luanda, sent a summons to José, editor of the privately owned newspaper Hora H, and on June 13 they questioned him in relation to defamation and insult complaints filed by Bento Bento, the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) first secretary in the capital, according to news reports and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Bento’s complaints stemmed from a March 29 report by Hora H’s affiliated online video outlet, in which José covered corruption allegations involving a land deal by Bento, José told CPJ. Authorities released José after classifying him as “arguido,” or a formal suspect in criminal proceedings, a necessary step to possibly being charged with a crime or arrested.
José told CPJ that Hora H had sought Bento’s comment more than a month before publishing their story.
“Instead of any reply to our questions, Bento chose to intimidate journalists by using his political weight to sue us,” José said, adding that this was the 24th criminal defamation suit he had faced over his work. He said most of those cases were unresolved, and some had closed without a formal prosecution.
CPJ called Bento and contacted him via messaging app for comment but he did not answer.
Separately, on June 20, a judge in the province of Kwanza Sul held a hearing in criminal defamation and insult cases against Constantino, a reporter for the Catholic Church-owned broadcaster Radio Ecclésia, according to news reports and Constantino, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
That case stemmed from complaints filed by Morais António, the former president of the provincial electoral commission, over a 2020 report by the journalist about António’s resignation amid an alleged sex scandal, according to those sources. Constantino has been classified as arguido in that case since 2021, he told CPJ.
He said his court appearance in the case is scheduled for July 6, when he expects to learn whether he has been convicted. The public prosecutor had asked for the charges against Constantino to be dropped because of a lack of evidence, according to news reports and Custódio.
António told CPJ by phone that he believed Constantino “went beyond the facts in his reporting” and accused the journalist of failing to publish his reply to the allegations. Constantino told CPJ he stood by the reporting, which he said was based on António’s resignation letter.
António also filed separate criminal defamation and insult complaints against Caetano, a correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Voice of America and the news website Club K in Kwanza Sul province, over a December 2017 report by Club K about alleged corruption in the management of the provincial electoral commission, the journalist told CPJ by phone. Caetano said he was notified of his status as arguido in the case in November 2021.
That 2017 report was published under someone else’s byline, and featured a photograph that was later reused in an unrelated report written by Caetano in December 2019, Caetano told CPJ. He said he was not the author of the 2017 report and had “no say” in the photo in the 2019 article, adding, “This is a good example of how easily journalists can get sued in Angola for next to no reason.”
António told CPJ that Caetano must prove that he was not the author of the 2017 report, as the photograph was the same and Caetano was the only Club K reporter in the province.
“If it is not him so who is it?” António said, noting that the 2017 article alleged that he had embezzled money.
Caetano had his first court hearing in that case in March, according to Custódio. The case was adjourned and a date for the next hearing had not been set by June 29, Custódio said.
Kwanza Sul public prosecutor Mário Sacuiema told CPJ in a phone interview that he could not comment on Constantino or Caetano’s cases, and confirmed that a date for Caetano’s next court hearing had not been set.