The Angolan regime of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos must be stopped from silencing Rafael Marques de Morais, perhaps Africa's most fearless and effective anti-corruption reporter.
Marques' fight against regime-corruption and embezzlement of funds inspires reporters in other African countries bedeviled by state corruption, including Nigeria, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, DR Congo and many other African countries.
He wrote a book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, that was published in Portugal in 2011, implicating top military officers and the companies in atrocities against civilians in the regions where diamond extraction occurs.
The alleged abuses included killings and mass displacements. The generals and the mining companies sued Marques in Portugal, but a court there dismissed the lawsuit. The generals and the mining companies filed action in Angola, where they have home-court advantage.
The country's dictator, Jose Eduardo do Santos, has been in power for 36 years now. His military officers and relatives run the oil-rich country like a family mafia-type business enterprise. In 2013 Forbes named President dos Santos' daughter Isabel as Africa's first female billionaire. Marques has for years denounced corruption and dictatorship in Angola; he has won several media awards.
Marques' trial on the criminal defamation charges started March 24. If convicted, he will be sent away for as many as nine years and would face a $1.2 million fine.
This is not the first time Marques has endured a campaign to silence him by the Angolan regime.
Ironically, Marques started out as a reporter at Jornal de Angola, the state-owned newspaper, when he was 21. He was immediately a marked man because one of his first articles dared to quote an opposition leader who criticized President dos Santos. Multiple demotions followed; still, Marques couldn't stop himself from injecting critical commentary in his articles. He was eventually fired.
After Angola's civil war flared again in 1998, Marques collected petition signatures calling for an end to the war. He was denounced on radio and in newspaper articles.
In 1999, he published an article under the headline "The Lipstick of Dictatorship" in a magazine called Agora in which he denounced President Dos Santos as a dictator who promoted "incompetence" and who had destroyed Angola. Marques was arrested and charged with defamation. He was held for 40 days without charges and denied access to counsel and his family. He was denied food and water when he refused to sign documents prepared for him by the security agencies.
Marques was released on bail after considerable pressure from the international community, including from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Open Society.
His trial eventually was held beginning in March 2000. He was charged under Angola's Law 7/78 or the "Law on Crimes Against State Security." He was convicted of the charges of abuse of the press resulting in an "injury to the President" and sentenced to six months' imprisonment and fined $16,000.
The Committee To Protect Journalists condemned the verdict and the U.S. Department of State said he hadn't received a fair trial.
Facing a global outcry, the Angolan court suspended the sentence provided Marques agreed not to write anything "defamatory" about the regime. His password was confiscated for a year and he was ordered to pay damages President dos Santos.
But the government's campaign failed to neuter Marques.
He devoted more energy in campaigning to end the nation's civil war, assembling a coalition of 250 civic and religious leaders to speak with one voice against the conflict.
He also wrote several articles about alleged misappropriation of state funds from the country's billion-dollars state coffers; corruption in the oil-rich Cabinda Province; and the tragic effects of trade in conflict diamond in Luanda Province.
Marques had also founded an organization calledMaka, which is dedicated to documenting and exposing corruption in Angola.
As one of Angola's best-known investigative reporters, he was able to document the terror and killings unleashed against local people by private security companies together with Angolan military officials, in the diamond mining regions. In November 2011, Marques issued a criminal complaint accusing nine Angolan generals of crimes against humanity in connection with the diamond mining operations. With the publication of his book in Portugal, so started his legal predicament.
After the lawsuit was dismissed in Portugal, the current action was commenced in Angola.
Marques survived the first case in the 1990s. He's better known around the world now. He won the Percy Qoboza Award the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in the U.S. in 2000; he won the Civil Courage Prize from the Northcote Parkinson Fund, which recognizes "steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk -- rather than military valor," in 2006; in 2011, Human Rights Watch awarded him a Hellman/Hammett grant for his contribution to freedom of expression in Angola; and, he won the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award, in 2015.
But with more recognition also comes more risks since his work now commands global attention. The regime is aware of this and may opt to silence him this time with a long prison term unless there is another major outcry.
During one of his visits to New York City, I met Marques at the offices of Sahara Reporters, another major media organization that is revolutionizing journalism in Africa, with a focus on Nigeria. He had come to visit Sahara Reporters' founder Omoyele Sowore, who is cut from the same cloth and his been a thorn to Nigerian authorities, exposing rampant corruption there.
These are the type of Africans that can change the course of the continent's destiny; bringing an end to business as usual or viewing corruption as an acceptable African phenomenon.
When I asked Marques about the risk he faced with his brand of fearless journalism, his simple response was: "If we don't do it, who will make Africa a better place?"
Marques once told an interviewer that growing up in poverty in Angola strengthened his "resolve to do the right thing" especially after a conversation with his mother as a boy.
He said he always used to ask his mother why he didn't have the things his classmates had and that his mother said: "Well I can steal for you, but then they wiil say that 'your mother is a thief.' Would you like that?"
He says his country has to "tackle corruption very seriously if Angolans are to have a chance at a better life."
Now Marques goes about denouncing the fact that while Angola has a billionaire presidential daughter and several multi-millionaires connected to the First Family and the military leadership, 60 percent of the country's population lives on less than $2 a day, as of 2009.
The regime also regards Marques as an "enemy" because he likes pointing out that even though China has invested $15 billion in Angola in return for oil, the hospitals, roads and other infrastructure projects don't alleviate Angola's high unemployment rate because China brought 250,000 workers for the projects.
He also notes that while Angola's military was allocated $40 billion over a 5 year period, enriching the generals, regular soldiers not stationed in urban areas live in tents or mud huts. Amnesty International and other organizations including the Committee To Protect Journalists are once again at the forefront of demanding for justice for Marques.
Marques' next court date is April 24. Please lend your voice to on-going campaigns to free Marques including this petition on change.org
Angola, and Africa, can't afford to lose Marques' voice and the excellent work of his pen. The new Africa will be created by courageous reporters like Marques.