Tight state control over Angolan media means voters go into the country's elections with poor information at their disposal, writes Terra Angolana News. Most media carry a steady diet of pro-MPLA propaganda.   

Terra Angolana News reports:

With the 5 September Angolan elections just a few days away, campaigners are busy touring the country competing for voter support. No one forgets that the last elections in 1992 pushed Angola back into a long and bloody civil that killed over a million people, with many more displaced. It also ushered in an era of severe repression of dissent, both within the political realm and the media.

Since civil war between the government Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the former rebel movement UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) ended in 2002, there has been some increasing diversification of media. The country now boasts a few independent radio stations and newspapers.

Yet, despite this positive sign of democratic development, many media and activists in the country voice concern that, as the elections draw near, the public may not be hearing the whole truth.

When campaigning began on 5 August, each party was allotted five minutes on television and ten minutes on the radio per day for campaigning purposes. Yet, at the start of campaigning, MPLA posters and symbols were already plentiful in major cities, and over the last month MPLA messages have featured significantly in the state-owned broadcaster’s airtime. 

“I can’t believe observers have not seen the television or listened to the radio. It is easy to see that media is controlled by the ruling party,” said UNITA spokesperson Adalberto da Costa Júnior. Da Costa further contends that such monopoly of the media threatens equality of opportunity for the other parties. 

According to a report by Freedom House, even Radio Ecclesia, the country’s longest standing private station, has been repeatedly blocked from broadcasting outside the capital. The station has historically been outspoken and critical of the government and ruling party.

Petro Santa Maria, Acting National Director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Angola agrees that the MPLA has been monopolising state media in its campaign.

“The media should play a role in order to give room to everyone, equally. But this is not working in Angola. And you will see that the national radio of Angola, the TV, the daily newspapers are clearly campaigning for the ruling party,” says Santa Maria. “Which is wrong.”

The government enacted a new Press Law in 2006, and while it is an improvement over previous legislation, it is still highly restrictive. According to Freedom House, libel of the President and his representatives is punishable by high fines and possibly imprisonment, and publications with three defamation convictions within a three-year period could face yearlong suspensions.

The Law on State Secrecy permits the government to classify information, sometimes unnecessarily, and publishing classified information is a criminal offense. Private media complain that government will simply deny them access to official events or information.

In May 2008, a state television broadcaster was suspended for admitting how much interference MPLA has in the network’s editorial policy.  He will not be back to work until October – conveniently after the elections.

The next month, a court slapped the director of private newspaper Semánario Angolense, Felisberto Graça Campos, with a heavy fine and sentenced him to six months in prison for three accounts of libel. In July, privately owned Radio Despertar was ordered off the air for 180 days for allegedly extending its radio signal beyond Luanda – an accusation the station has challenged.

“When a new radio or voice comes into the society it makes them [ruling MPLA] uncomfortable,” said  Alexandre Neto Salombe, former director of Radio Despertar. “And if you make them uncomfortable they try to threaten and intimate the management of the radio and fundamentally the listeners.”

So what kinds of pre-election news are most Angolans getting? A scan of the national newsagent Angola Press’ (ANGOP) website provided a selection of not so subtly pro-MLPA articles outlining new construction projects, the continued popularity of the ruling party, assurances that MPLA is the most prepared to run the country, and reports of smooth and timely electoral processes.

Yet human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, as well as private media and alternative outlets such as online blogs, often tell a different story. They counter that those construction projects mainly benefit foreign investors, that the MPLA has been mismanaging public funds for years, and electoral processes have been slow and riddled with low-level harassment and intimidation from both sides.

While some, mainly urban, Angolans do have access to independent media sources, the majority do not. Moreover, although state media are more open than they used to be, they remain the largest media sources, the only sources to broadcast nationally and, according to Freedom House, allow very little government criticism. 

Both independent and state journalists, fearful of reprisals such as suspension, arbitrary detention, harassment, or accusations of libel, often practice self-censorship.

So what does this mean for a free and fair election on September 5th? Santa Maria is skeptical.

“I do think that media should play a role in which there is room for the voiceless, there is room for everyone. And then this media should be at the usage of the people. But in our specific case you will find out that the media that’s getting the funds from the government is not advocating for giving room to the voiceless, is not advocating for giving room to the other stakeholders so we can have pluralism, so we can have diversity, and we can have a media which is independent from the political party. 

Diversity and pluralism of opinion and perspective are at the foundation of democracy. The ruling party’s continued refusal to allow nationally broadcast or circulated independent media, as well as their continued interference in both state and independent broadcasting is indicative of their reluctance to truly embrace democracy and the democratic process. The implications for the September elections are significant. Without freedom of the press, how can a country truly guarantee freedom anywhere else?

* This article first appeared on 27 August 2008.