Last month, I participated in a meeting of over 30 Angolan journalists, mainly private media, in the provincial capital of Huíla province, in the Southern part of Angola. The event was organized by Trócaire’s local partner, Mãos Livres (Free Hands), an Angolan association of journalists and lawyers for human rights. Remarkably this meeting of freelance journalists, who came together to discuss media independence and the protection of journalists, was the first of its kind ever to be held in Angola.
The journalists came from all over the country to discuss the difficult environment in which they work. I discovered just how difficult a job they do. It was inspiring to hear the sheer determination and commitment they have in ensuring that those without a voice, predominantly the majority poor, have a say in issues and situations that affect their lives.
Over the past number of years, the space for journalists, particularly private media journalists, to produce unbiased media coverage has been shrinking in Angola. There has been a steady increase in reported cases of attack, intimidation, and sadly, even murder of journalists for speaking out.
Many, if not most, of the journalists who attended were meeting each other for the first time. One participating journalist from the east of the country, the most isolated part of Angola, told me after the meeting that this was the first time he had felt supported in his work. The sense of urgency was almost tangible in the room as journalists spoke of their different experiences of being prevented from doing their work. At the meeting the journalists were able to openly and frankly appeal for protection from assault (which they should anyhow receive from national legislation) to the senior members of Government who were in attendance.
Dr. Marcolino Moco, the first Prime Minister of Independent Angola, was also at the meeting. He said that the event was an innovation and that the biggest impact will be to pressure State media to be less "propagandist", more representative of the diversity of opinions and viewpoints, in its news coverage.
Coming from Ireland, where press freedom and the protection of private media have never been a major issue, I have seen something very different in my five years in Angola as Trócaire’s Governance & Human Rights Programme Officer. The things I took for granted in Ireland - access to accurate information, the right to “know things”, be “informed”, reporting of news in an “independent, non-partisan manner” - are not enjoyed by so many people in many parts of the world. Law is one thing, practice an entirely different matter.
Because of their traumatic nature, I found some of the experiences that the journalists spoke about difficult to listen to. But I came away with a sense of pride that Trócaire’s local partner organisation had facilitated such an interactive debate on a sensitive but important issue. The journalists will no longer work entirely in isolation.
There was a strong sense of solidarity and hope among participants as we left Lubango. Having taken decisions on how to ensure improved protection of journalists and improved access to information for all Angolans, the journalists agreed that they would work and support each other to face the challenges that will undoubtedly arise.
I got a strong feeling that this was something important, the beginning of something important that will have ramifications far beyond the meeting room in Huíla.