The ordeals of award-winning and celebrated Angolan journalist, Rafael Marques de Morais, are so chilling to hear about, they sound like the playbook for a Hollywood thriller.

Marques was accused of criminal defamation by Angolan generals after releasing  “Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola”, an expose on the illegal diamond trade. It covered, among other things, gross human rights violations and high-level corruption in the Angolan government. (You can read it for free online).

Marques was being handed a six month suspended sentence after the generals won their case against him in the Angolan courts. Releasing his book, effectively made Marques a criminal in the eyes of the law.

Criminal defamation is simply defined as trumped up libel but with far greater consequences for anyone accused of it. With the recent drives to heavily regulate and in some instances censor the media in some African countries there is a growing fear that cases such as Marques’ will become more prevalent.

Groups such as Right 2 Know who campaign for a free press and free speech here in South Africa are especially concerned.

According to Caroline James, lawyer at the South African Litigation Centre, they have every reason to be, as the laws surrounding criminal defamation are vague and open to interpretation. This means that criminal defamation has the potential to be used to spread fear among those that wish to tell both sides of the story.

“Truth is often the first casualty of war and the preceding revolution” Marques said speaking to us in Johannesburg, “after the war in Angola ended in 2002 we hoped to see the re-emergence of a free press, sadly this is not the case”.

Marques said that since the war in the Lusophone country ended 13 years ago, the wealthy elite have taken control of the country’s oil reserves, bought up independent publishers and newspapers and is using them as their propaganda mouthpieces.

This has resulted in a restriction of the Angolan media space where today there are only ten daily newspapers of which a mere 5 000 copies per day are printed. There is also one state controlled newspaper and two public television stations, one of which one is run by the President’s immediate family.

This gatekeeping along with with cases such as Marques’ inspires fear making many journalists hesitant to exercise free speech.

It’s not just in Angola

Tom Nkosi is a community newspaper journalist and media activist from Mpumalanga, South Africa. Nkosi heads the independent community newspaper, Ziwaphi, in Mpumalanga that bills itself as the province’s only progressive and investigative newspaper.

From what Nkosi tells us, new South African laws could put journalists on a path similar to the one in Angola, and see cases such as Marques’ becoming commonplace in South Africa.

To illustrate this, Nkosi tells a story about a laptop that was handed into authorities. The laptop in question contained information about a government official and their alleged connection to a spate of unsolved killings in the province.

The story was published but upon further investigation, Nkosi discovered that another government official had hired two individuals to steal the laptop and hand it in, tainting the information it contained. This information was published by Nkosi, with the signed affidavits from the two cohorts to verify his allegations.

The allegations were vehemently denied and two weeks later Nkosi was contacted by the SAPS informing him that a case of criminal defamation had been opened against him by the government official who hired the two individuals.

Since then, Nkosi says the official has sought to make his life miserable, berating him publicly in front of his peers at press events and calling his credibility into question.

As Nkosi puts it, “criminal defamation is overkill”. He goes on to explain to us that the reason for this is that existing laws and regulations within South African media are more than capable of defending those that feel they are a victim of libellous accusations.

It becomes clear after listening to both Nkosi and Marques de Morais that there is something far more sinister at play here. Criminal defamation, it seems, is being used by powerful people to discourage those that seek to expose corruption and mismanagement.

It affects more than the media

Beyond the problems criminal defamation pose to reporters and investigative journalists, it also acts to block information making its way into the public domain. If the media’s ability to report the news becomes too fettered by legislation, the public’s access to information becomes limited.

Of course, if this all sounds wrong and unjustifiable to you there are things you can do, but it requires taking action.

At present there are two bills open for public comment, the Copyright Amendment Bill is open for comment until the 16th September and the Cybercrimes and Related Matters Bill will close public comments on 30th November. You can go a step further and donate or join the Right2Know campaign which fights for constitutional freedoms and brings issues such as these to the public in an easily understandable manner.

We live in a democracy that allows everyone to have their voice heard and join in the shaping of our democratic landscape. Defence of our freedoms is our own responsibility and we should all be more a bit more invested in that pursuit.

[Image by CC 2.0 – Duncan Hull]