Jonathan McCully contributed to this report.
Last month, Rafael Marques de Morais was awarded the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism for his “impactful, original, and unwavering investigative journalism” in his home country of Angola. Tomorrow, he will face trial on multiple charges of criminal defamation because of his work as a journalist.
In his acceptance speech, Marques de Morais spoke of his belief in the “power of solidarity” and dedicated the award to Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, his colleagues in Ethiopia who are currently serving time in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Marques de Morais has been a prominent investigative journalist in Angola for over two decades, working for national and international news outlets, in addition to his own investigative news site, Maka Angola. The subject matter of his trial is his book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, which has been heralded not only as a serious piece of investigative journalism, but also as a significant work of human rights reporting. The book documents numerous human rights abuses committed by Angolan military generals in the course of diamond mining operations in the country, shining a spotlight on an often underreported sector of the Angolan economy. As a result of his reporting on these matters, Marques de Morais faces a claim in damages totaling $1.6 million and nine years’ imprisonment. This is an extortionate penalty for informing the public of grave human rights allegations. His trial begins on 23 April, at the Luanda Provincial Court in Angola.
Previous Conviction Over Critical Reporting
Marques de Morais is no stranger to this form of oppression. On three occasions in 1999, he wrote articles critical of President Dos Santos in the independent Angolan newspaper Agora. He stated that the President was responsible for the “destruction of the country,” and blamed him for the promotion of incompetence and corruption in political life. Marques de Morais was jailed for 43 days without charge, and thereafter prosecuted and eventually found guilty of the “crime of injury” towards the President, given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay damages.
The UN Human Rights Committee reasoned that the severity of these criminal sanctions “cannot be considered as a proportionate measure to protect public order or the honour and the reputation of the President, a public figure who, as such, is subject to public criticism and opposition.”
Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola
During the early 2000s, Marques de Morais researched the trade in conflict diamonds in Angola and uncovered human rights abuses in the Lunda region of Angola. In 2011, he published Diamantes de sangue: Corrupção e tortura em Angola (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola) in Portugal. The book detailed the reported homicides, torture, intimidation and land grabbing experienced by inhabitants over a period of 18 months in the diamond mining areas of the Lunda region. It included ground-breaking reports of 500 cases of torture and 100 killings. According to the book, guards from a private security firm and a number of generals in the Angolan Armed Forces were complicit in these abuses.
In November 2011, Marques de Morais filed a criminal complaint in Luanda accusing nine Angolan generals of crimes against humanity and corruption in connection to the diamond mining activities that had taken place in the Lunda region. But the Attorney General’s office refused to take the case, arguing that the information provided by victims was “worthless” as they had “not provided any new information” beyond what they had communicated to Marques de Morais for his book.
Criminal Proceedings in Portugal, Angola
In 2012, a group of Angolan generals filed a criminal defamation complaint against Marques de Morais in Portugal over the book. On 11 February 2013, to the dissatisfaction of the generals who made the criminal complaint, the Portuguese Prosecution Service chose not to pursue the matter, stating that Marques de Morais’ “intention is clearly not to offend, but to inform.” In March 2013, the generals brought a civil claim before the Lisbon Court demanding compensation of $400,000 for the alleged defamatory statements made in the book.
While civil proceedings in Portugal were still ongoing, on 3 April 2013, Marques de Morais was summoned for interrogation by the Organised Crime Unit of the National Police in Luanda, Angola. He was summoned without a warrant, interrogated in the absence of his lawyer, and not informed of the nature of the evidence that had been collected against him. After a series of irregular summons and encounters with the prosecution, Marques de Morais was eventually informed that his trial was to take place in December 2014. This hearing was eventually rescheduled by the Angolan authorities in an apparent attempt to dissuade foreign observers and members of the public from attending the hearing.
Angola Must Respect the African Charter on Human Rights
At the end of 2014, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that custodial sanctions could only be used as a legitimate interference with freedom of expression under very limited circumstances such as incitement to hatred or violence. It also stated that all sanctions that are of a criminal nature, including civil fines, must be necessary and proportionate to the crime in question.
Angolan authorities are seeking to punish Marques de Morais under criminal defamation laws that present a clear affront to the right to freedom of expression. This right is recognised by Article 9 of the African Charter, which is binding on Angola, as interpreted by the African Court. Not only is he facing a nine-month custodial sentence for reporting on issues of public interest, but there is no demonstrated legitimate reason why for authorities to seek such a harsh penalty.
Marques de Morais’ case is a clear illustration of Angola’s continuing campaign of prosecuting those who exercise their right to freedom of expression for legitimate journalistic purposes. His story highlights the often disproportionate criminal sanctions that can be incurred by those who seek to speak out against corruption and human rights abuses in Angola. We hope that the Angolan court will take into account its commitments under Article 9 of the African Charter when it hears the case on 23 April 2015. But we also know that Marques de Morais’ position remains precarious.
Jonathan McCully is Case and Project Support Officer at the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), a global legal support organization that helps journalists, bloggers, and independent media outlets defend their rights by offering both financial assistance and substantive litigation support. Nani Jansen is MLDI's Legal Director.