- As Angolan authorities earlier this month decided on holding general elections in 2006, the first since 1992, human rights groups raise concerns over the slow paste of democratisation in Angola. The freedoms of expression, association and assembly are still very limited in most parts of the country and independent media are struggling to gain a foothold.
On 2 July, the President's advisory council recommended holding general elections in 2006, the first since 1992. "Peace in Angola has paved the way for advances in freedom of expression, association and assembly, but in the interior of the country these freedoms continue to be violated," the US group Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 35-page report, 'Unfinished Democracy: Media and Political Freedoms in Angola,' notes that the detention and harassment of journalists has become less common since the decades-long civil war ended in 2002, and that Angolan authorities have become more tolerant of opposition political activity.
However, these changes had largely been confined to the Angolan capital, Luanda, the report found. In the country's interior, "government agents often use violence against opposition activists, and there is no independent media," according to the US group.
- It is encouraging that the Angolan government appears committed to holding elections in 2006, commented Peter Takirambudde, of Human Rights Watch. "But for the elections to have credibility, the government must safeguard free political activity and press freedom in all parts of the country," he added.
Peaceful public demonstrations by a range of political and civic groups are becoming increasingly common in Luanda. But in the interior, according to testimony received by the human rights group, the police, the government's Civil Defence Organisation and local administration officials "often interfere with the work of opposition groups and favour the ruling party."
In one case in February, armed men reportedly shot dead at least nine people, including three children, during a protest against the removal of electrical generators from the town of Cafunfo in Lunda Norte province. Police arrested 17 people at the scene, three of whom reportedly died in custody, while the others remain in detention without legal process and are barred from communicating with their families.
In another incident in April, opposition members in the town of Kalima, Huambo province, reported how Civil Defence members broke into and tried to burn down the newly established office of an opposition party, and assaulted opposition members. The police reportedly has not investigates the incident.
In November 2003, on the outskirts of the capital, members of the Presidential Guard reportedly drowned a young man who had been singing a song critical of the government.
The private media in Angola is largely independent of party politics and is often critical of government. But the state controls the only daily newspaper and the only non-satellite television station. Radio broadcasting, the medium accessible to most Angolans, remains a government monopoly in most parts of the country, with private radio stations available only in a few cities.
The Catholic broadcaster, 'Rádio Ecclésia', is currently the most accessible source of independent news in the capital, but it has been barred from extending its broadcasts to other areas of the country.
Angola's private weekly newspapers reach only a few thousand wealthier citizens, almost all of them in the capital. Journalists and editors report that they are constrained by stringent libel laws and the privileged access that powerful individuals have to the courts.
If properly enforced, the Angolan constitutional provisions that guarantee freedom of expression and free political activity would go a long way towards creating the conditions for free and fair elections.
- The Angolan government must ensure that opposition leaders and supporters are permitted to express their views peacefully without fear of reprisals, commented Mr Takirambudde, "The government should also lift remaining restrictions on the private media, and allow non-government radio stations to broadcast throughout the country," he added.
Human Rights Watch today called on Angola's many international donors and trading partners to "pay close attention to violations of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly and to make the promotion and protection of such freedoms an integral part of assistance strategies."
- Donors should also consider supporting free and private media in Angola to broaden the range of opinion heard as the elections approach, the human rights group added. Currently, free and private media in Angola struggle an uphill battle to gain financial stability, faces with competition from the heavily subsidised state media.
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