(Johannesburg) – Angolan prosecutors should drop charges against two journalists accused of insulting the state and allow them to do their jobs without interference, Human Rights Watch said today. Rafael Marques de Morais, who runs the anticorruption website Maka Angola, and Mariano Bras Lourenço, editor of the weekly newspaper O Crime, were charged on June 21, 2017, with “outrage to a body of sovereignty and injury against public authority,” under Angola’s Law on Crimes against State Security.

Journalist Rafael Marques de Morais sits in court in Luanda, Angola on May 28, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

The journalists were charged over publishing an article about an alleged illegal land acquisition involving the attorney general, João Maria de Sousa. The article – first published on Maka Angola  in November 2016, and re-published by O Crime the same month – alleged that de Sousa unlawfully acted as a property and real estate developer in addition to his official duties. The article also suggested that President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos supported the attorney general’s actions.

“The charges against Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras Lourenço is the latest attempt by Angolan authorities to unduly limit freedom of expression and the media,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern African director at Human Rights Watch. “Exposing improper business deals involving state officials is not a threat to state security, but is journalism in the public interest.”

Angolan media operates in a very restrictive environment, with authorities often repressing coverage of cases of corruption involving government officials. In November 2016, without public consultation, parliament passed a media law that gives regulatory control of all media to a new body controlled by the government and the ruling party. The Angolan union of journalists called the law “a political tool to intimidate the press,” and vowed to take the matter to the constitutional court. Despite opposition, on January 23, 2017, Dos Santos signed the bill into law.

Angola is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression and the media in article 19. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors state compliance with the covenant, has stated, “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.” Thus, “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”