sexta-feira, 11 de março de 2016

Once bullied, twice brave: How persecuted Angolan writers persevere

Being a writer determined to tell the truth in Angola is no walk in the park as the authorities have ways of dealing with such voices. The imperative is that those of goodwill and strength of character do what the government fears the most as they endeavour to conquer the space for freedom of expression for all citizens. By RAFAEL MARQUES DE MORAIS.

Writing has been my life’s passion and my curse too. In my teens, I was bullied for being an avid reader and for wanting to express my opinions as informed by my readings. I vividly remember being taunted with the idea that “too much reading will bring you madness and disgrace”.
I had to endure periodic assaults. Each time I returned home crying, sobbing or bruised my mother would offer me two choices only. First, she would advise me to play by myself in the safety of our home. Second, she would warn me that if I went out to play with the bullies, I had better return home quiet with no complaints or I would have to face her punishment for not knowing how to defend myself, and insisting on putting myself in harm’s way.
As I grew, I set up a makeshift gym, with weights made out of tin cans and cement, and quietly began a process of acquiring muscles and physical strength to defend myself and my right to express my ideas.
I came to understand the social context of obscurantism and poverty. I also learnt about the political establishment that did not want individuals to stand out except in obedience to its rules and dogmas, and the mediocrity that became the norm of social being.
Yet, I was deeply affected by the experience. I had to learn to be invisible, to hold back on thoughts, to avoid debating or expressing knowledge. But I kept training the body and the mind.

Being a journalist and the threat of martyrdom

As I chose journalism as a career, I came to experience a different kind of bullying. I see dictators and their cronies as bullies who, thanks to the powers vested in them by their states, and the people they have come to subjugate, constitute a class of some of the worst criminals in the world.
In 1992, while working for the state daily newspaper in Angola, I investigated the activities of a businessman who was also a Member of Parliament for the ruling party MPLA. He ran a terminal at Luanda’s port, where he was accustomed to stealing the merchandise from the containers of his clients to stock his own shops and other business ventures. When the photographer working with me went to take pictures of some of the containers which had been diverted by him, as evidence, the businessman, protected by the police, punched my colleague.
We ran the story and denounced the assault.
The businessman immediately dispatched his brother, a three-star general, to the newsroom to strike fear into us and have the story disavowed. He did not succeed.
However, unbeknown to the newsroom there was a conversation between the businessman and the newspaper’s director, and that changed everything. According to the revised report, no journalist was ever punched and the businessman was a law-abiding citizen.
That newspaper, the Jornal de Angola, remains the only nationwide daily newspaper, and nowadays it seems its sole purpose is to defend the corrupt.
This is how bullies in power behave when they fail to silence all quarters of dissent. They use laws — but only when it suits them — as a tool for self-protection, or to strengthen their claims to political legitimacy and international respectability.
For instance, in 1997 I wrote an article for a weekly independent newspaper, Folha 8, about the discriminatory military conscription of the poor and powerless for the renewed war effort. For the first time I was called in for questioning by the police. I had written about the poor mothers who had been turned into mass-producers of “cannon fodder”. So the investigators threatened me by asking me if I wanted to become a martyr. We all know what that means.
I deliberately wrote in such a way that I could not be accused of defamation nor of a crime against State Security. Nevertheless, the judicial apparatus was summoned to deliver the threats. It backfired. All the shouting and the table-thumping only strengthened my resolve. That year, being interrogated by the police became a badge of honour for journalists crafting space for independent media in Angola.

Being a poet is a problem too…

In 1998, as the country braced itself for yet another return to civil war, after three years of tentative peace, I published a book of poems: “In the Heart of the Enemy”. The message of one poem, which gave its title to the book, was this:
I want to be the word
the smile
in the heart of the enemy
Listening to the whispering of evil
vanishing little by little
in the heart of the enemy
It came as no surprise when that anonymous shadowy figure of authority, which in Angola we call “superior orders”, had the book removed from the shelves of Luanda’s main bookstore. t was deemed subversive. This was not about the actual content, but a heavy-handed attempt to intimidate into silence the author with ideas contrary to the status quo. 

Criminal defamation and bullying back

In 1999, I became closely acquainted with criminal defamation. I was in a personal tug-of-war with another writer and Member of Parliament for the ruling MPLA, João Melo, exchanging op-eds from opposite points of view about the country’s political and military situation.
In a final rejoinder to him — The Lipstick of Dictatorship — I called the president a corrupt leader and a dictator. I was arrested for that. After 40 days in preventative detention, 11 of which held incommunicado, I was only charged on the day of my release and the charge was for the crime of defaming the dictator.
By the way, I was initially locked up as a prisoner of war. I was sentenced to six months in prison by a kangaroo court that did not allow me my legal right to present any evidence against the president. A number of international organisations took up my case, reporting it to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) which ruled that my imprisonment was illegal, and my conviction did not follow due process.
The UNHRC urged the government of Angola to pay me compensation for the damages. The government responded that the United Nations had no authority to intervene in this matter. Two years later, that same Angolan government was occupying a UNHRC vice-presidency. And went on bragging about this at home as a triumph of Angolan diplomacy. Today, it is happy to hold a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council of the UN. Such is the world.
My arrest and trial drew such intense national and international pressure that it led to campaigns to repeal the infamous article 46 of the Media Law on criminal defamation. This was the article which did not allow any evidence against the president to be presented. A new media law was passed in 2006, scrapping article 46. The new law no longer mentions defamation or slander but refers to the Penal Code and other legislation in which defamation remains criminalised.
Let me tell you how they use the law on criminal defamation as a form of political harassment against those the government feels it can take down without jeopardising its tight grip on power. One of Angola’s foremost journalists, William Tonet, has a significant constituency. And he has harnessed his support to master the art of bullying back the authorities. Over the years, the journalist, who owns the weekly newspaper Folha 8, has collected more than 90 summons for defamation and slander of members of the regime. 
On October 10, 2011 the Luanda Provincial Court convicted him on charges of defamation against the two most powerful generals in the country, the Minister of State and the head of the President’s Security Bureau, General Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias, “Kopelipa”, and the head of Military Intelligence, General José Maria.
In addition to a one-year suspended prison term, the court also sentenced Mr Tonet to pay US $105,000 in compensation to the generals. Proof of William Tonet’s popularity came quickly: about 23,500 people contributed more than $71,000 in just one week to express their solidarity with him and their outrage against the judicial system and the generals. The court refused to accept the payment out of fear of a snowball effect of solidarity against the regime.

Constitutional caveats and legal minefields

In 2010 Angola passed its first written constitution, in which fundamental rights and freedoms are coded in language that allows the government to postpone the full exercise of such rights until the appropriate conditions exist. According to at least one expert in constitutional law writing in a report yet to be published: Angola’s constitution “demands that the state first create the conditions that guarantee the effective realisation and protection of these rights.” Thus, “[..] the provision establishes human rights standards that are ‘inviolable’ but perhaps only after an aspirational set of conditions emerges that would be conducive for them.” More...

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