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Landmark ruling in Angola acquits journalist Rafael Marques of all charges

Rafael Marques de Morais | 2015 Allard Prize ceremony | Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 3.0

A court in Luanda has acquitted journalist Rafael Marques and editor Mariano Brás of charges of insulting the Angolan state in what many considered a milestone for the country's press freedom.

Marques was charged in June 2017 after publishing an article in October 2016 alleging that then-Attorney General João Maria de Souza had engaged in corrupt dealings to acquire beachfront property where he built a residential compound. The article was published on independent news website Maka Angola, of which Marques is the founder and editor.

Mariano Brás, the chief editor of the newspaper O Crime, which published the article in print, was facing the same charges. Marques was additionally being accused of “offending an organ of sovereignty” for allegedly having offended the ex-president José Eduardo dos Santos in the same piece.

At the latest hearing on July 6, judge Josina Falcão, who was presiding the case at Luanda Provincial Court, stated that the journalists merely “fulfilled their duty to inform” and dismissed all the accusations against both men.

While this was not the first time that Marques was brought to trial for his journalistic work, it was indeed the first time that the Luanda Provincial Court acquitted him — in the previous cases, he merely had the sentence suspended.

The case was followed by various news outlets as well as activists on social media. This is one of the first highly profile court cases during the government of João Lourenço, who succeeded the long-serving president José Eduardo dos Santos in September 2017.

Angolan activist Luaty Beirão, who was present at the trial, tweeted as it unfolded, up to the moment of the sentence:

“It is the understanding of this court that truth exists in the text published by the defendant and that he did nothing more than fulfil his obligation to inform the public. We do not perceive that there was any intention to defame the plaintiff”.

1st Tweet: “It was proved during this trial that the process of land acquisition, at the origin of the article by the defendant which triggered the case which today comes to its end, is tarnished by irregularities”. Conclusion? Who committed a crime? Who should have been in the dock? The messenger?

2nd Tweet: The day of passing sentence

1st Tweet: After 3 hours of reading what seemed to be a doctoral thesis, we get to the interesting part: Mariano Brás, innocent of all charges, @RafaelMdeMorais, innocent of all charges.

2nd Tweet: “The court understands that we would be erring if, as a society that wants to evolve, we decided to punish the messengers of bad news. In taking public positions, it is necessary to become used to being scrutinized and criticized. If you cannot stand the heat, you cannot work in the kitchen”

After the hearing, Marques, who was awarded World Press Freedom Hero in 2018 by the International Press Institute, said that the court's decision was “historic”. He ensured the public that he “will continue denouncing all those who harm the country”.

A new beginning for Angola?

Some civil society organizations are hopeful that the court’s decision recognizing Rafael Marques’ innocence marks the beginning of a new era in Angola’s court press freedom.

In an interview with DW África, Alexandre Solembe, president of the Institute for Social Communication in Southern Africa in Angola, said he had no doubts that the result would have been different if José Eduardo dos Santos, the former Angolan president for several decades, was still in power.

Under the former president’s time in office, there were numerous cases of harassment of journalists and activists who were critical of the government.

Similarly, the news was welcomed by the African Federation of Journalists, an organization which brings together professionals in social communications from across the continent:

For Human Rights Watch, it was a victory for press freedom, as highlighted by the organization's researcher for Africa, Zenaida Machado:

The unexpected ruling is a victory for freedom of the press in a country where the media has been on a tight leash, with authorities often repressing coverage of cases of corruption involving government officials, through intimidation and abusive use of defamation laws. Following today’s historic court ruling, the Angolan government should now go further and seek to amend the 2017 media law so that journalists are able to do their jobs in a free environment.

The African network of reporters, RSF África, also welcomed the case, stating that it was a positive sign for investigative journalism:

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