Over the last five years, the current president of Angola, João Lourenço, has held several unscripted press briefings. The last one was two hours of back and forth between Lourenço and twelve journalists.
While this seems typical for western countries, it’s almost unheard of in Angola, much less Africa. This, in part, is due to the 40-year rule of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which only recently allowed for a multiparty system and, therefore “free” press.
From 1979 to 2017, José Eduardo dos Santos was Angola’s President, during which time the MPLA instituted a one-party state, and government propaganda was rampant. Disinformation was so typical that even today, many Angolans don’t trust the media. In a 2017 study by Afrobarometer, only 24% of respondents in Angola said they had “a lot” or “some” trust in the media.
This is likely because, for much of Angolan history, the media has been used as a mouthpiece for the government.
The MPLA’s Angolan Radio and Television (RTA) was the only media outlet until 1992 when the government allowed a second radio station. This, however, was short-lived as the government soon revoked the station’s license.
In the early 2000s, the government lifted a ban on private television stations but required them to be 60% Angolan-owned. This was seen as a way to maintain government control over the media. It wasn’t until 2012 that a third radio station, Radio Despertar, was allowed to operate.
The government’s monopoly on the media began to unravel in 2013 when a group of Angolan journalists created a website called Maka Angola. The website was dedicated to investigative journalism and quickly gained a following.
This was a turning point for the media in Angola as it showed that there was a demand for unbiased reporting, but it hasn’t been without pain and controversy.
Under President João Lourenço, there have been several contradictions in Angola’s media landscape in the last five years.
Two journalists were acquitted of defamation in 2018, encouraging journalists who had previously been in prison for their reporting. However, in 2021 two more journalists were reportedly charged with libel.
While President Lourenço has been receptive to a more free press, this apparent contradiction could be influenced by the old guard of the MPLA, still holding some power and resistant to change.
And yet, there has been an increase in Angola’s press freedom rankings. Angola was ranked 121 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Today, Angola is ranked 99 out of 180 by Reporters Without Borders.
While this is progress, Angola still has a long way to go before it can be considered a country with a truly free press. The government’s monopoly on the media for so many years has created a culture of distrust and cynicism that will take time to change.
Currently, there are only a handful of private media outlets, and most are located in the capital, Luanda. This means that, while more voices are being heard, they are not necessarily representative of the entire country.
There is also a lack of media diversity. Business people own most outlets with ties to the government or the MPLA. This creates a conflict of interest as they are more likely to report favorably on the government to maintain their relationship.
The country will also need to develop the infrastructure and institutions needed to support a free press, such as lower barriers to entry like broadcasting fees, education, and access.
It is also worth noting that, while the government has taken steps to allow for a more free press, they are still very much in control. The media is still heavily regulated, and the government can revoke licenses anytime.
This was made clear in 2020 when the government shut down Radio Despertar, one of the only independent radio stations in the country.
The station was known for its critical reporting and had been a thorn in the government’s side for years. The closure of the station was a significant blow to press freedom in Angola.
Overall, Angola is making progress regarding press freedom, but there is still a long way to go. The government’s monopoly on the media for so many years has created a culture of distrust and cynicism that will take time to change.
Forecasting The Future
Angola will hold a presidential election this year, 2022, and it is widely expected that President João Lourenço will win.
This is good news for the media as President Lourenço has shown himself to be more receptive to the press. However, he must be willing to force change among the old guard of the MPLA, still influential, to realize an open democracy that values a truly free press.
This means that, while there may be some progress made on press freedom under President Lourenço, it is likely to be slow and incremental.
The opposition, on the other hand, Adalberto Costa Junior, has been consistently vocal in his support for a free press. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) has promised to end the government’s monopoly on the media and create an environment where independent journalism can flourish.
However, it is worth noting that UNITA has been in power before and did not make good on its promises. They will have to prove that they are serious about press freedom if they want the people to believe them.
Angola holds excellent potential for hosting a free and independent press that can act as a watchdog on government corruption and human rights abuses and ensure a free and fair election this year.
The world will be watching how the Angolan government handles the press in the lead-up to the election, and it will be a good indicator of how committed they are to the future of a democracy that values a free press.
*Kristi Pelzel is an Policy Analyst, University Adjunct, and Consultant. She was a Former White House Correspondent for Today News Africa and U.N. Graduate Fellow focused on U.S.-Africa relations. She holds an M.A. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.