As tension rises in Angola ahead of next yearÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s long-expected
elections, allegations are emerging that government is working on a
massive plan to bring the independent media to heel, writes Gilberto Neto in this exclusive for journalism.co.za.
Some Luanda newspapers recently reported that a meeting led by the Angolan Prime Minister decided on a plan which would make it difficult for the independent media to function freely. According to the papers, the meeting also included top officials from the police and the secret services.
Quoting a source who allegedly attended the meeting, one of the papers said that the plan has several components:
* advertising by all of the stateÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s companies will be cut from independent newspapers and sympathetic private companies will be pressured to do the same;
* state spokespersons and other officials will turn down requests for information from private media;
* journalists in newsrooms will be recruited to leak sources for their reporting.;
* bank accounts of the private media outlets will be investigated. If any impropriety is found, journalists will be charged and fined heavily, with the aim of bankrupting and closing critical newspapers.
The plan is actually underway already,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â weekly Semanario Angolense (SA) said, noting that a cellphone company owned by the presidentÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s daughter unexpectedly informed them that it will not renew a large advertisement contract.
Special attention will be given to SA, the leading Angolan independent weekly with a tradition of focusing on state corruption and mismanagement. The recent jail term imposed on the newspaperÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s director and owner is said to be part of that broad government strategy to suppress the independent press.
GraÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â§a Campos was on October 3rd sentenced to eight months in jail for allegedly slandering a former minister. He was fined $250 000, but the paper has stated that it cannot afford to pay the fine and so he went to jail. He was released just over a month later, pending a review in the Supreme Court.
In reaction to the case, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThe country has distinguished itself in recent years by desisting from jailing journalists for press offences. This period unfortunately now seems to be over because we now have to remind the Angolan authorities that prison is absolutely not the solution in cases such as these.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
Some time later, the paper said that half of its editors, including the deputy director, were urged to report to the National Department of Criminal Investigation for inquiry. The reason for the summons was not immediately clear.
The government denied that a plan against the media exists. The Minister of Social Communications said he does not believe the plan is real as it would seriously jeopardize the ongoing democratic process in the country. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œI am the minister and donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t know of such a planÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â, said Minister Manuel Rabelais, formerly a popular sports journalist.
But the allegations have prompted great concern among media professionals and civil society organizations. The secretary-general of the Angolan Syndicate of Journalists (SJA), Luisa RogÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©rio, urged a ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œserious investigationÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â to be carried out. She said if the allegations turn out to be true, such a plan would damage the governmentÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s credibility as it had signed the Windhoek Convention for Freedom of Expression.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThey should make no mistake. ItÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s too late to stop the role the independent media plays in our society,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â said Aguiar dos Santos, director of the weekly Agora. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œAnd let me say that I am not afraid of that. They would just waste their time,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â Dos Santos warned.
The ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œevil plan,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â as one lawyer labeled it, also targets radio stations, especially the Catholic-owned Radio Ecclesia, which many considered the most reliable broadcasting station in the country. A massive migration of journalists and editors from the private media due to attractive offers by the state media is said to be part of the alleged plan to weaken the private media.
Six of Radio EcclesiaÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s editors and reporters have abandoned the station in the last few months and joined state media, thus seriously eroding the stationÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s capacity.
The National Radio, TV, and Luanda City Radio have, in the past few days, hired former Ecclesia journalists. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThey are being offered better wages, as well as social and working conditions,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â weekly A Capital said.
Radio Ecclesia gained huge public audience and trust during the civil conflict for its independent, accurate and balanced reporting, as well as lively weekend debates on current national issues. The station has been battling for years to secure the right to go national without success. The issue has become a subject for political debate as the government has not given clear reasons for failing to issue Radio Ecclesia the permit to do so.
The 2006 Press Law allows only the state radio to broadcast on shortwave to a nationwide audience.
The instability inside Radio Ecclesia started to emerge long ago under a highly controversial priest who headed the station. Hopes for a better environment surfaced a year ago when a veteran journalist, Gustavo Costa, at the time working for the state TV, replaced the priest as the new Executive Director.
Gustavo Costa, however, further fueled the bad environment inside the radio station with conflicts with reporters and the general director, according to insiders.
Costa is back with state television, where he edits a morning TV show. He took with him senior journalists: the anchor for the show and the two main reporters all came from Ecclesia. Many now believe he joined Ecclesia with a hidden agenda. The station now is rotating its provincial correspondents to the capital Luanda in an attempt to fill in the gaps.
Why such attacks on the Angolan media? Many analysts believe that the reason is primarily political. There is increasing concern within the government circle that the private media could damage the ruling party and its candidate in the upcoming elections.
Critics say that such fears are the main reasons behind the ongoing volatile political situation in the country, which has been intensifying in the past six months. Newspapers recently reported that recent events, which include the trial and conviction of a former boss of the secret services, the split of Partido para o Desenvolvimento e Progresso de Angola (PADPA), an enthusiastic opposition political party known for organizing massive demonstrations against corruption and lack of good governance, as well as the persecution of a popular lawyer known for defending popular cases, may have originated in the ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œregimeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s laboratory,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â aimed at fomenting instability within the media and in the opposition.
Angolan parliamentary elections are expected to be held in 2008, and there are concerns that the governing Movimento Popular de LibertaÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â§ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â£o de Angola (MPLA) may not be able to secure a majority in Parliament. If that happens, the ruling party believes that its candidate for the presidential election, tentatively set for one year later, could be in jeopardy. The opposition, civil society and the international community have been pressuring the government to hold these elections.
They do not have any guarantee of victory, so people should not expect polls to take place until the government believes that people will massively vote for them,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â Semanario Angolense quoted sources it considered well-placed.
The only elections Angola had to date were held in 1992, shortly before the civil war resumed, plunging the oil-rich nation into a deep political crisis. Since 2002, the year the war ended, the government has been promising elections but always found a way out. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThey have kind of run out of excuses, so they need something really convincing to show that elections should wait a little longer,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â the source noted.
The regimeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s hope for restoring its political credibility rests on a massive public works programme throughout the country, fueled by Chinese billion-dollar loans.
The authors of the alleged plan against the independent radio and newspapers want to stop further damage to the image of the president and the ruling party. The aim is to enforce a sweetheart media.
*Neto is a freelance journalist