Letter from Bali:
For the first time, I am attending an international gathering exclusively dedicated to internet governance. The critical points of discussion focus on freedom of expression, regulation, respect for human rights and access to the internet.
The venue could not be more welcoming. The 8th Internet Governance Forum is taking place in Bali, Indonesia. I am happy to be a member of the Freedom House delegation attending the event, and I am greatly enjoying the local hospitality.
As a multi-stakeholder meeting, the forum has been offering a remarkable platform for the United Nations, governments, the relevant private sector and civil society actors to engage in dialogue on governance of the internet.
From civil society the voices converge on the need for greater protection of journalists, bloggers and civil society organizations that use the internet to promote freedom of press, human rights and government accountability, particularly in repressive environments.
Delegates from civil society are also asking governments for transparency in regulations, surveillance policies, and in exposing private business practices that are harming human rights. These include the export of surveillance technology to regimes bent on cracking down on internal criticism. Many call for the naming and shaming of the companies engaged in such business deals for putting so many activists in harm’s way.
The Angola Factor
These discussions have inspired me in respect to the governance of the internet in Angola, my own country. Access to the internet has been growing, and the most recent data shows that up to 5 percent of the 19 million Angolans are able to access the internet.
In spite of the negligible internet access by the population, the internet has become the fundamental platform for freedom of expression in Angola. The traditional media outlets, in general, are under the tight grip of the government, and the internet is still unregulated.
However, recently the Angolan authorities started aggressively pursuing activists for online activities critical of public officials, particularly associated with corruption and human rights abuses.
This forum has also reminded me of a great danger that lurks at the National Assembly of Angola. In April 2011, it passed the bill for the proposed “Law to Combat Crimes by IT, Communications and Information Services Companies.” If it comes into effect, it will be a draconian cybercrime law.
A major public outcry led the National Assembly to postpone the final vote on the proposed legislation. The ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), controls more than 72 percent of the seats in parliament, and it only needs a general distraction to make it a law.
First, I will address the new development concerning the prosecution of activists for online content, and then I will share a clip of what I had written about the proposed government law, which remains current.
Prosecuting the Messengers
On July 9, 2013, the Attorney-General’s Office charged two activists, José Gama and Lucas Pedro Fenguele, each on three different counts, for crimes of abuse of the press, defamation and slander against senior public officials.
Both were accused of being part of a popular website Club-K, which is based abroad and run by members of the Angolan diaspora. The same office also issued “secret” travel bans against both activists, but it had to reverse these days later, once the official arguments for the order were exposed online.
The case raises serious legal concerns. Currently, the Angolan legislation does not allow anyone to be prosecuted on the mere suspicion of being linked to a website. Club-K is not registered in Angola, either as a domain or as a media entity.
As a remedy, the government is using the media law for prosecution. But this is also problematic. The media law requires the authorities to identify the authors of the articles, or the managers or owners of the outlets in which the contentious issues are published.
The Crime Scene
Two articles and an open letter have caused the prosecutions. Two of them are a clear indication that the authorities are targeting the messengers.
The Attorney-General of the Republic, General João Maria de Sousa, lodged two criminal complaints against both activists for two articles the website published about him this year. The first alleged that he owns a mansion in Portugal, while the other was simply the re-posting of an article published by the Portuguese weekly newspaper Expresso, on criminal investigations that General João Maria de Sousa has been facing in Portugal for money-laundering and fraud. The Attorney-General has not made any attempts to sue the Portuguese publication, whose online contents are also available in Angola. Furthermore, the Portuguese Attorney-General’s Office and the general himself have publicly acknowledged the investigations against him.
In the third case, the website disclosed a letter signed by family members of a detainee who had been tortured while in the custody of the National Directorate for Criminal Investigation (DNIC). The authorities did not deny the case of torture, nor press charges against the detainee’s family members who signed the petition. The head of DNIC, Commissioner Pedro Alexandre, decided best to prosecute the two activists whom he also perceives to be representing the website.
What makes Club-K so popular is its policy of free comments. Not even the pro-government online brigade is able to counteract the range of free expression with which readers comment on issues of governance, corruption and human rights that expose senior public officials. This is what the government wants to eliminate, even though it knows it lacks the technical capabilities to shut down the website in Angola.
The Draconian Internet Governance Bill
The proposed new law is an attempt by the government to criminalize the use of the internet by journalists, bloggers and activists who are critical of the regime.
Four of the seventy-seven articles of the draft law raise immediate concerns. One article prohibits the online posting or sharing of photos, recordings or videos without the consent of those appearing in the content. Its accompanying jail sentence is two to eight years. This law, which exempts the state media and all other state institutions from penalty, essentially makes blogging, Facebook postings and participating in online media a criminal activity for any person not working to serve the official functions of the state. Another article penalizes anyone who sends or forwards a message (email, text, tweet, etc.) with the intent to “disturb the peace and tranquillity or the personal, family or sexual life of another person” (art. 18). Yet another article broadens the concept of terrorism to encompass any “intent of changing or subverting the functioning of state institutions, to force the authorities to undertake certain actions, to abstain from carrying out such acts (…)” The sending of messages, news or posts that fall into this vaguely-defined category carry a sentence of twelve to sixteen years in jail (art. 24). A fourth article of the proposed law confers discretionary powers on the military, police and state security apparatus to search homes without warrants and seize data and related equipment, including computers, hard drives, mobile phones, CDs, DVDs, pen drives, etc (art. 75, 1).
The initial draft law submitted by the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technologies (MTTI), to the Presidency of the Republic in 2010, did not include any one of the abovementioned articles. It was the President, in his capacity as the executive who submitted the draft law to the National Assembly, who in turn, inserted these provisions.
These recent additions, as some local analysts suggest, were responses to the popular uprisings in North Africa that toppled longstanding authoritarian leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. In these countries, social media helped to overrun the propaganda apparatuses of their regimes.
As the regime of President José Eduardo dos Santos waits for the right political moment to pass the draconian law, it is imperative that those advocating for freedom of expression, in the international arena, be aware of the Angolan situation.
Internet freedom campaigners must help Angolans to get rid of such a despicable draft law for once and for all. Freedoms of expression and of the press are enshrined in the Angolan Constitution, and advocates of these freedoms must propose the drafting of a bill that respects the constitution.
What is also remarkable to note is how the websites of the Angolan presidency, of the Ministry for Telecommunications and Information Technologies and several key institutions have either been out of service or have not been updated for a long time. What this means is a matter for further reflection elsewhere.
One valuable lesson I take from this meeting is what I have to share with my peers, back home, on how to ensure their relative digital security. In Angola, we have yet to become part of the more serious discussions on internet governance that have been animating the international arena for quite a while. We remain at the margins, and we need to start doing our homework to catch up.
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