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Angolan whistleblower and activist Rafael Marques named ‘World Press Freedom Hero’

Rafael Marques has been honoured with the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Hero Award, which recognises journalists who have made significant contributions to the promotion of press freedom, particularly at great personal risk.

Journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan journalist who has spent decades exposing conflict diamonds, corruption and human rights abuses in his native country, has been chosen as its 70th World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute (IPI). He will receive the award on 22 June 2108 in Abuja, Nigeria, at the IPI’s annual World Congress and General Assembly.

Marques is the first IPI World Press Freedom Hero from Angola and the third from the Portuguese-speaking world, after Portugal’s Nuno Rocha and Brazil’s Júlio de Mesquita Neto. Last year the award went to Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega, who spent nearly six years in prison on sham anti-terror charges before his release in February 2018.

Marques welcomed the news, saying in a statement, “I am deeply honoured and thankful. I am honored because this award comes at a time when I am on trial for exposing high-level corruption, while President Lourenço claims to be fighting it. Yet it is unfitting to receive an international award for doing the basic work of exposing the ills of my own country in order to right them for the common good.”

Barbara Trionfi, executive director at IPI, hailed Marques for his dedication to the quest for the truth in an unforgiving environment for press freedom.

“Despite Angola’s systematic repression of independent media, Rafael Marques has managed – at great personal risk – to bravely and persistently shine a light on the abuse of power at the highest levels,” she said. “Through his articles, books and research, Mr Marques has carried out the type of watchdog journalism that the country’s state-dominated media have been unable to perform, providing an essential service to the Angolan public and the international community,” she said in a statement.

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Marques received a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Anthropology and Media from Goldsmiths, University of London, and an MSc in African Studies from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

He started working as a journalist in 1992 at the state-owned newspaper Jornal de Angola. “I realised that the way of addressing the issues that concerned me was by being a journalist,” he was quoted as saying in a 2012 interview.

Shortly after he joined Jornal de Angola, Marques wrote an article on the forthcoming 1992 presidential election, in which he quoted an opposition leader’s criticism of Dos Santos. The quote, which had not been intended for publication ended up in the paper through an editorial error and got Marques moved down to the local news desk. Due to what was described as his “tendency to inject unwelcome social commentary into even the driest reportage”, he was finally fired after a series of demotions.

He resurfaced in the limelight when, in 1999, the weekly magazine Angola published his article titled “The Lipstick of Dictatorship”. In the article he criticised Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, calling him a dictator and charging him with destroying Angola and promoting “incompetence, embezzlement and corruption as political and social values”. Because of this he spent 43 days in pre-trial detention before being convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. This was later reduced to a suspended sentence.

After years of writing for independent outlets highlighting pertinent issues in Angola, Marques went on to originate watchdog website Maka Angola in 2008. The website provides investigative coverage of corruption involving top Angolan political, business and military leaders.

Read: Angola votes for a new president after 38-year rule of Jose Eduardo dos Santos

The mismanagement of Angola’s natural resources led him in 2011 to author his internationally acclaimed book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, which details allegations of murder, assault, arbitrary detention and forced displacement of civilians in relation to the country’s lucrative diamond-mining industry.

Legal Woes

Marques and his colleague Mariano Brás Lourenço are currently in court for allegedly insulting a public authority in a 2016 article that scrutinised a real-estate transaction involving Angola’s then attorney-general. They could face up to four years in prison if found guilty.

The case has raised doubts about possible democratic reform in Angola under President João Lourenço, who succeeded Dos Santos last year.

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