Peace in Angola has paved the way for advances in freedom of expression, association and assembly, but in the interior of the country these freedoms continue to be violated, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. On July 2, the president's advisory council recommended holding general elections in 2006, the first since 1992.

The 35-page report, “Unfinished Democracy: Media and Political Freedoms in Angola,” notes that the detention and harassment of journalists has become less common since the decades-long civil war ended in 2002, and that Angolan authorities have become more tolerant of opposition political activity. However, these changes have largely been confined to the Angolan capital, Luanda. In the country’s interior, government agents often use violence against opposition activists, and there is no independent media.

“It’s encouraging that the Angolan government appears committed to holding elections in 2006,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “But for the elections to have credibility, the government must safeguard free political activity and press freedom in all parts of the country.”

Peaceful public demonstrations by a range of political and civic groups are increasingly common in Luanda. But in the interior, according to testimony received by Human Rights Watch, the police, the government’s Civil Defense Organization and local administration officials often interfere with the work of opposition groups and favor the ruling party.

In one case in February, armed men shot dead at least nine people, including three children, during a protest against the removal of electrical generators from the town of Cafunfo in Lunda Norte province. Police arrested 17 people at the scene, three of whom then died in custody, while the others remain in detention without legal process and are barred from communicating with their families.

In another incident in April, opposition members in the town of Kalima, Huambo province, reported how Civil Defense members broke into and tried to burn down the newly established office of an opposition party, and assaulted opposition members. The police did not investigate the incident.

In November 2003, on the outskirts of the capital, members of the Presidential Guard drowned a young man who had been singing a song critical of the government.

The private media in Angola is largely independent of party politics and is often critical of government. But the state controls the only daily newspaper and the only non-satellite television station. Radio broadcasting, the medium accessible to most Angolans, remains a government monopoly in most parts of the country, with private radio stations available only in a few cities. The Catholic broadcaster, Rádio Ecclésia, is currently the most accessible source of independent news in the capital, but has been barred from extending its broadcasts to other areas of the country.

Angola’s private weekly newspapers reach only a few thousand wealthier citizens, almost all of them in the capital. Journalists and editors report that they are constrained by stringent libel laws and the privileged access that powerful individuals have to the courts.

If properly enforced, the Angolan constitutional provisions that guarantee freedom of expression and free political activity would go a long way towards creating the conditions for free and fair elections.

“The Angolan government must ensure that opposition leaders and supporters are permitted to express their views peacefully without fear of reprisals,” said Takirambudde, “The government should also lift remaining restrictions on the private media, and allow non-government radio stations to broadcast throughout the country.”

Human Rights Watch called on Angola’s international donors and trading partners to pay close attention to violations of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly and to make the promotion and protection of such freedoms an integral part of assistance strategies. Donors should also consider supporting free and private media in Angola to broaden the range of opinion heard as the elections approach.

Background

A ceasefire agreement signed on April 4, 2002, between the Angolan Armed Forces and the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, or UNITA) ended an armed conflict dating back to the 1960s, when rival liberation movements jockeyed for position in the then Portuguese colony. When Portugal withdrew from Angola in 1975, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or MPLA) took control of the capital Luanda and coastal regions, while UNITA established itself in the interior. This set the stage for a civil war that was fueled by the Cold War superpowers, which supplied arms and funding to the rival factions.

A 1991 peace accord opened the way to multiparty elections the following year that were narrowly won by the MPLA. The election failed to bring peace. Amid the widespread killing of UNITA supporters in Luanda, the rebel movement—which had failed to fulfill its obligation to disarm—went back to war and seized control of much of the interior. The government gradually won back territory during the 1990s, helped by U.N.-sponsored sanctions on the diamond trade, with which UNITA was funding its war effort.

The return to war was accompanied by the erosion of the freedoms expected to accompany multiparty rule, and which had been promised in the 1992 constitution. By early 2002, the government had succeeded in isolating UNITA’s founder and leader, Jonas Savimbi, in eastern Angola, and he was killed in battle on February 22. UNITA’s surviving leaders entered talks with the government that led to the formal ending of hostilities and the demobilization of UNITA’s forces. The ensuing peace has opened the prospect of national elections.