The International Press Institute (IPI) today a welcomed a court decision in Angola acquitting journalists Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Brás Lourenço on charges of insulting the country’s former attorney general.

The ruling came just weeks after Marques was officially recognized as IPI’s 2018 World Press Freedom Hero during a ceremony at the 2018 IPI World Congress in Abuja, Nigeria.

The two journalists faced up to four years in prison over an article scrutinizing a real-estate transaction involving the former attorney general, João Maria de Sousa. The judge in the case reportedly found de Sousa’s claims to be groundless and concluded that the defendants had exercised proper journalistic care.

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen welcomed the ruling.

“Today’s acquittal of Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Brás Lourenço is excellent news for press freedom and human rights in Angola”, he said. “Although this trial should never have come to pass in the first place, we hope this ruling is a sign of change following decades of harassment of independent journalists in Angola.”

In a message to IPI, Marques called the decision “a historical ruling for press freedom in Angola, and against Angola’s kleptocracy”.

The case was seen as a test of press freedom under the administration of Angolan President João Lourenço. Lourenço took over last year from José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the former Portuguese colony with an iron fist between 1979 and 2017.

IPI announced Marques de Morais in May as the recipient of the 2018 World Press Freedom Hero award in recognition of his having braved decades of harassment and prosecution to expose human rights abuses in Angola. The award is presented in cooperation with the Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS).

In a statement following today’s verdict Marques said the award had “at the right time, emboldened Angolans to side with justice, for many start believing now in the power of independent journalism, and how it can help restore moral values in society and the call for the rule of law”.

Much of Marques’s crusading work has focused on the kleptocratic management of natural resources in Angola, whose vast oil and mineral reserves have enriched a small ruling elite even as millions remain in poverty. His internationally best-known work, the 2011 book “Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola”, detailed allegations of murder, assault, arbitrary detention, and forced displacement of civilians in relation to the country’s lucrative diamond-mining industry.

This statement has been updated with comments from Rafael Marques.

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