The Angolan National Assembly passed four new bills this past August establishing a new regulatory body, “Entidade Reguladora da Comunicação Social Angolana” (ERCA), the Angolan Social Communications Regulatory Body.
The move was approved in a series of laws formulated by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), President José Eduardo dos Santos’ ruling party. They control nearly 80 percent of Assembly seats. The ERCA itself will be managed under the discretion of the MPLA.
Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan investigative journalist and editor of MakaAngola, a watch-dog independent news site, said it is a move by the ruling party to further control all mass media outlets within the country and restrict freedom of information via social media.
Of the few remaining independent journalists still active in Angola, Morais believes this new supervisory body is unconstitutional. “The government is clamping down of the final frontier of press freedom, and freedom of expression: The Internet,” said Morais in an interview with MediaFile this past week.
The ERCA is empowered with wide jurisdictional powers. The supervisory body will be able to determine who is able to receive professional accreditation as a journalist. This means that without a permit granted by the ERCA, journalists will be unable to work legally, unless they are hired by state media.
Foreign journalists can no longer report in the country for more than a month without a permit.
Along with the ability to deny any journalist the right to work, the body will be able to enforce compliance with professional journalistic standards that the ERCA itself is free to determine. It will also have editorial powers over all media-related outlets to “verify and promote their conformity with the corresponding legal requirements.” Morais said one of the legal requirements is that all content must be “patriotic,” with no specific definition of what that entails.
Agents will be able to shut down newsrooms without judicial search warrants and seize electronic equipment. For journalists like Morais who work out of their homes, ERCA would be able to search the houses of bloggers, seize their electronic equipments without judicial search warrants. “My ‘newsroom’ is literally my kitchen table – the ERCA can even seize my pots and anything else they feel like taking in my home.”
While freedom of speech and press is guaranteed in the Angolan constitution, state security laws take precedence. Criticism of the regime is often taken as a threat to the integrity of the country.
According to Freedom House, those who are found by the state to have “insulted” the Republic of Angola, and by extension, the President, can be detained and imprisoned arbitrarily.
Journalists in Angola often practice self-censorship to avoid getting sued by the government for defamation. Morais himself has been arrested several times and sued for criminal defamation by a group of generals for a book he wrote on corruption within government linked to diamond mining.
Angolan media is primarily controlled by the MPLA. The country’s official news agency, Angola Press Agency, is state owned. The only radio station with the capacity to broadcast nationwide, Rádio Nacional de Angola, is also state owned. The same goes for television stations: Angola Public Television broadcasts in Luanda and most major cities, but other privately owned networks do not have the broadcasting power to reach the entire country.
Undoubtedly, the response to the heavy censorship in print and media channels can be seen on social media and online blogs, which have become the main source of open debate in Angola. However, with the inception of the ERCA, activists, journalists, or virtually anyone criticizing the government will have a much harder time engaging in open, uncensored dialogue.
The move to control online expression is unprecedented. Morais isn’t aware of any other African regime that has gone to this length to limit free speech through the legal system. The ERCA will have major implications for whistleblowers and critics of the regime going forward.
When asked about his plan to combat the ERCA with his work, Morais said, “The regime will not mess with my kitchen. If they come for me again, I will throw my kitchen sink at them.”