Angola’s ‘well-behaved’ media

Press freedom under President João Lourenço is in bad shape.

Presidents Kagame, Lourenço, and Tshisekedi, Luanda, 2022. Image credit Paul Kagame via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

In the same week that Human Rights Watch reported that press freedom in Angola is “under threat,” Angola’s president João Lourenço held a press conference where he shared how pleased he was with the local press’ performance, as “it was doing the job it should be doing.” Although some suggest that these were two separate events, this discursive dichotomy constitutes one of the greatest ambivalences that both journalists and the press are going through in Angola nowadays. 

Today more than ever, and as a characteristic across the world in the post-truth era, the Angolan press is experiencing a turbulent period, which calls into question many of its key principles. In addition to the fight against misinformation and disinformation, there is another challenge that the Angolan media has to face: a delusional political leadership, whose discourse feeds the illusory idea that there is currently an appropriate environment that enables the press to fulfill its key purposes. 

This illusory vision, fundamental to maintaining the regime’s official narrative, can be observed in the recent statements that Mr. Lourenço made in Huambo, in the south of Angola. “Angolan journalism is growing and fulfilling its role,” he said, adding that: 

The journalism practiced in the one-party state era was very different from what is practiced today. Today there is press freedom, it is not only the State that owns media companies; the private sector is also in this market niche.

As expected, these remarks were received with much criticism and skepticism from journalism organizations and the lay public. As Teixeira Cândido, the Secretary General of the Union of Angolan Journalists (SJA), told Portuguese news agency Lusa in reaction to the president’s comments: 

We respect the president’s opinion but our opinion, and looking at Angola’s position today in the Reporters Without Borders ranking, is that there is no growth, there is only stagnation and setback as far as press freedom is concerned in Angola. 

In Angola, the press has always played a fundamental role in governing. For this reason, Angola’s ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and its successive governments, have paid particular attention to this sector. So it comes as no surprise that state-run media is first in the top 10  companies that received the most financial subsidies from the state in 2020.

The main media organizations in Angola, including Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA), Rádio Nacional de Angola (RNA), Jornal de Angola (JA), and Agência de Notícias de Angola (ANGOP), are state-run. Their dominance in the broadcast arena in Angola has nothing to do with the quality of their journalism, rather they are the only media institutions with the material and financial resources to reach the entire country.

The government’s interest in playing a relevant role within the press sector can also be observed through so-called private initiatives, which were later discovered to be connected to companies linked to the MPLA or high-profile individuals belonging to Angola’s political and economic elite. Examples of these are leading provincial radios, such as Luanda Antena Comercial (LAC), Rádio Morena, Rádio Cabinda, and Rádio 2000, some managed by Sopol, part of the Gefi business group, made up of senior MPLA leaders and considered an “economic arm” of the party

However, Angola is not an exception. Many autocratic regimes behave the same way worldwide. Researchers Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung note that: 

State-controlled media do not exist solely to praise the powers that be, however. A vital companion function is to trash and discredit alternatives to the authoritarian status quo before these can gain traction with citizens at large. In this way, state-run media are a tool for marginalizing any potential political opposition or civic movement. Without meaningful access to the airwaves, opposition groups find it difficult to reach potential supporters or become significant voices in the public discussion.

The Angolan government is the largest holder of media companies in the country, saturating the country with pro-regime propaganda across almost all channels. This state of affairs leaves the independent press that remains in Angola with a very difficult job. Despite arguing that his tenure is marked by greater freedom in the press, as a way of criticizing his predecessor’s almost 40-year rule, it was during Lourenço’s first term that great atrocities were committed against the few private media outlets critical of political power or doing its best to hold power accountable. 

These include placing the privately-run TV Zimbo under state management, with the argument that it was created with public resources derived from corruption. Launched in 2008, TV Zimbo was also the first private television station in the country. Although Mídia Nova, the group that owned TV Zimbo, belonged to two former senior officials from the previous government, the television station was seen by many Angolans as an alternative source of information in the face of pro-regime propaganda to which the entire state-run media is dedicated. In the same period, other former private-run media, such as Palanca TV, Zap, Jornal O País, and Rádio Mais came under state control after similarly being accused of corruption.

In this year’s report, Human Rights Watch says that “the press was under attack on several occasions throughout 2023, as authorities continued to use draconian media laws to repress and harass journalists.” With a government so eager to control the media, a toxic and suffocating atmosphere for journalism has been installed in Angola.

Take, for example, Brazilian President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva’s comment during a 2023 state visit that he was “shocked” at “how well-behaved” the Angolan media is. Lula’s shock was related to Angolan journalists not asking challenging and compromising questions, as happens in his home country and elsewhere.

With so much interference from political power, an ideal scenario has been created in Angola today for cases of censorship and self-censorship within journalism. Fearful of the consequences of not following the censorship rules, many journalists are forced to produce journalism that they know does not comply with the basic principles of the job, such as truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. This is seen very frequently, for instance, in the way in which the state-run media journalists cover issues related to political opponents and anti-government views holders in Angola. 

The lack of impartiality in this type of media coverage has always sparked public debate about the real role of state-run media, and whether taxpayers should continue to foot the bill for media outlets that function as propaganda tools of the state while doing little in the realm of public service.

As the scrutiny and criticism grow, the lack of trust in Angolan media is leading many to look for alternative ways to access information, be it on Facebook or TikTok. With this, a fertile ground opens up in Angola for new forms of journalism and information dissemination.

Although not always accompanied by professional journalistic rigor, many online journalism initiatives have recently emerged in Angola, becoming extremely popular among users, especially young people.

The use of social media (as we have seen in the way memes have been used) and other cultural expressions has been constructive. However, it is always important to note that autocratic regimes tend to spare no effort to stay ahead of the narrative. An example of this in Angola is the approval of the controversial National Security Law, which proposes the interruption of telecommunications services when “needed.” 

Examples like this indicate that notwithstanding the democratic advances achieved by civil society, backward trends are never far off in autocratic states.

About the Author

Israel Campos is a journalist covering Angolan stories for international news outlets such as the BBC and Voice of America (VOA). He's currently a strategic communications master student at Universidade Católica Portuguesa.

Further Reading