Independent news sources are a rare commodity in Africa’s sub-Saharan region, where, according to watchdog group Freedom House, only 10% of the countries have truly free press. This past December, a census organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that 47 journalists have been imprisoned in the region, largely for having upset their respective governments through their journalism.
Rafael Marques de Morais was once one of those imprisoned for his reporting. He recalled the day of his arrest with Think Africa Press. “Don’t move,” Marques told his wife. “They have come for me.” When Angolan authorities came pounding on his door the morning of October 16, 1999, Marques already knew his fate. Three months prior his piece “The Lipstick of the Dictatorship” had been published in Angora, one of Angola’s few independent newspapers.
The piece was just the latest of Marques’ efforts to petition for the end of Angola’s long running civil war. Criticism of the government’s corrupt inner workings earned Marques a jail cell, with no word of charges or a trial. If not for international publicity garnered by the Open Society Institute, Marques may have been left to die there, having gone two weeks without food. After 40 days he was released and officially charged with defamation against the head of state.
Of course, Marques would be found guilty, with a court bailiff acting as his defense attorney in March of 2000. Only increased international pressure led to the suspension of Marques’ six month prison sentence, which had been upheld by the Angolan Supreme Court. The ordeal did little to quell Marques, who found a renewed spirit for human rights activism. His highly publicized case led to changes in Angola’s Press Law, ending the state’s domination of broadcast television. Marques himself has earned numerous awards for his efforts, including the Percy Qoboza Award for Outstanding Courage from the National Association of Black Journalists in 2000, and the Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy in 2011.
Freedom House reports that even Angola is better than 38 percent of sub-Saharan countries in terms of freedom of the press. The efforts of journalists like Marques are often suppressed by authoritarian officials, seeking to prevent word of their corruption from spreading. For those living in the region, the value of truth has never been higher, and there are few willing to pay the price the way Rafael Marques de Morais did.