Withering carnations

After airing an opinion piece criticizing Portugal’s Angola politics, a radio show is pulled and questions about censorship abound. Is the dire economic situation undermining Portugal’s democratic institutions?

On a spring night in April 1974, two journalists fed up with decades of severe censorship and state police torture in Portugal broadcast a secret signal song that kicked off the ‘Carnation Revolution.’ The movement overthrew the iron dictatorship of António Salazar that had held the Iberian country in its grip since 1933.

After two years of political struggle over the future of the country, the small, underdeveloped state celebrated its first democratic government under the social democrat Mário Soares in 1976. In the wake of the revolution Portugal’s colonies in Africa, devastated after long years of colonial wars, gained independence, for better or for worse: especially Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau tumbled into a long series of civil wars that only abated at the end of the 20th century.

The transmission of the signal song has since become part of national lore, and it is ironic that now, almost forty years later, once more a Portuguese radio program is making headlines. But instead of freedom and liberty, this time associations of censorship and oppression are invoked.

In late January 2012, the current affairs show Este Tempo (This Time) on public radio station Antena 1 was suddenly pulled and the contracts of its five contributors terminated. One of the collaborators, the internationally acclaimed journalist and writer Pedro Rosa Mendes believes that the end of Este Tempo is directly linked to an opinion piece he aired on January 18. In it he had criticized RTP, the dominant public broadcasting network Antena 1 belongs to, for having assisted the Portuguese government in an attempt to portray the Angolan regime in a favorable light. Portugal, dramatically shaken by the Euro crisis, has become increasingly dependent on investments from oil-rich Angola.

The bone of Mr. Rosa Mendes’ contention was a live TV broadcast of a roundtable with Portuguese and Angolan authorities from the Angolan capital Luanda that had aired two days earlier on RTP. The program prominently featured Portugal’s parliamentary affairs minister, Miguel Relvas of the PSD (the ruling, center-right party), who also oversees the state broadcast media. As Rosa Mendes observed in his editorial, the event “shamelessly” displayed a web of power and dependency between ex-colony and ex-colonial power:

“RTP offered the Portuguese viewers and the world – I was watching here in Paris – a broadcast entitled 'Reencontro' (Reunion) during which we were exposed for two hours to a parade of politicians, entrepreneurs, and commentators from both Portugal and Angola, among them several rich clowns and other grotesque folkloric figures. The public broadcasting service has very little repute, some might say none, but the 'Reencontro' that we witnessed this time was one of the most sickening and insulting exercises in propaganda and mystification I have ever seen.”

In a recent interview for this article, Mr. Rosa Mendes identified the cancellation of Este Tempo as a clear case of censorship and as evidence of far too great an entanglement of governmental interests and the media that compromises journalistic freedom. Several Portuguese media outlets have reported that deputy editor Ricardo Alexandre, who oversaw the opinion program, confirmed to the ERC, Portugal’s media watchdog, that the program was indeed cancelled because of the opinion piece in question. Mr. Alexandre also confirmed the same basic facts before the newsroom of RDP (RTP's radio broadcast arm) after a four-hour long meeting. Ricardo Alexandre has since resigned from his position as deputy editor but declined to comment.

RTP insists the cancellation of the program had been decided a while ago, and its director-general Luís Marinho went public saying he took responsibility for the decision to scrap Este Tempo. “Things did not happen suddenly. For a long time, voices from inside RTP had been criticizing the slot." The question of what exactly that means remains largely unanswered. In any event, the decision to end the program took everyone by surprise, as Raquel Freire, another collaborator for Este Tempo, confirmed in an email:

“The administration is lying. Two years ago I signed a contract with them that was to be renewed automatically every six months. To end the contract, one of the parties had to provide two weeks’ notice in writing. If they really decided to cancel the program on January 11, as they claim, why haven't I - up till now - received a letter terminating the contract?”

In a recent hearing Ms. Freire repeated this version to the ERC. She also plans to file suit against the broadcaster for breach of contract.

The case is keeping media in Portugal busy and is slowly gaining international attention, mostly online on human rights websites including Global Voices, Liberty Voice, and Reporters without Borders.

Now, things have become more agitated and tense. Mr. Rosa Mendes and Mr. Marinho, among others, appeared before the ethics commission of the Portuguese Parliament in early February. In reaction to accusations made by Marinho he felt were attacking his integrity, Rosa Mendes is filing suit against the director-general of RTP for defamation. As the liberal Portuguese newspaper O Público reports, Luís Marinho maligned Pedro Rosa Mendes by calling him "someone who has problems with reality.” Marinho also alluded to an earlier incident in which a piece by Rosa Mendes irritated the Angolan president, suggesting that the journalist, who values his own civic and journalistic ethics, flew to Luanda to apologize in person. Marinho alleges that the trip was paid for by the Angolan government. Rosa Mendes insists the encounter did not take place: “I never apologized and I never went to Angola at the president’s expense. In 15 years, I’ve been to Angola only twice because I’ve been considered a 'persona non grata' there,” he explained.

Luís Marinho could not be reached for comment.

The case may also be taken to the European Parliament.

While there is support for Rosa Mendes from peers like Raquel Freire as well as on social networking sites and blogs, many Portuguese journalists have so far remained silent. Meanwhile Rosa Mendes feels that his willingness to speak out against corruption during a period of crisis has left him isolated and vulnerable. Though he doesn’t fault his colleagues for their silence, he sees this as a symptom of uncertain economic times: “I mean I understand, I have two daughters too, I need to buy food, I need to buy books, I need to live, right, but still…”

Rosa Mendes has repeatedly written about African politics and corruption, and his investigative reporting and fiction have received highly prestigious prizes and awards, including two from the Portuguese PEN association. But the relationship between Portugal and its former colony has recently become a delicate subject. In the view of critics of the Portuguese government, the Angolan elite, flush with oil money, is exercising an increasingly large influence over the fortunes and the politics of its former colonial sovereign. According to Rosa Mendes, Portugal has become “subservient” to Angolan interests. What concerns him is what Angola gets in return for investing money in Portugal.

In a stark reversal of fortunes, Angola, whose oil revenues now surpass Nigeria’s, is buying up Portuguese banks and corporations. But according to Rosa Mendes, Angola is also shopping for loyalty, credibility, and respect. “It is widely discussed in Portugal how the freedom of the Portuguese media is at risk because a non-democratic country like Angola is in control of most of the Portuguese media,” says Rosa Mendes. In a post from January on his blog Abrupto, the member of the European Parliament and Portuguese politician and scholar Jose Pacheco Pereira also denounced the growing number of Angolan-controlled media outlets in Portugal, calling it “very, very alarming.”

Angola’s wealth is distributed among just a small percentage of the population. The majority lives in dire poverty, even in the capital Luanda, which is now the world’s most expensive city. Angola’s president José Eduardo dos Santos has held power since 1992, and he has known how to turn the misery caused by decades of civil war into an efficient business, as documented by Angolan journalists and activists as well as international experts like the late French sociologist Christine Messiant.

Rosa Mendes describes the Angolan oligarchy as “a mixture of a highly sophisticated elite with an almost Stalinist political culture. The children of the generals from the 1970s who fought in the civil wars became oil engineers and their children again became financial consultants. So the power and wealth always stayed in the family, and this process spans the period from the civil wars to the post-cold-war era to globalization.”

On Portuguese blogs, a few commentators have been saying that Rosa Mendes should not be surprised about getting laid off for criticizing his former bosses at RTP. While for some self-censorship may reflect pragmatism, another facet of the "Rosa Mendes Case" triggers more questions. In August 2011, the Portuguese news agency Lusa informed its then-employee Pedro Rosa Mendes, that the organization would close the office in Paris where he was based and still lives. Refusing to accept compensation offers, he insisted on being told the reasons for this lay-off, which he is still waiting to hear. Rosa Mendes: “In the course of five months, I was eliminated from two institutions in the public service. That is to say that in terms of political responsibility, I have been fired twice by the same minister.” In the meantime, a new Lusa delegation has been assigned to the French capital.

Miguel Relvas, the minister to whom Rosa Mendes is referring, and who appeared in the live broadcast from Angola, has not yet returned requests for comment about the removal of Rosa Mendes.

A journalist has been silenced. Sitting in his Paris apartment, fired from two jobs and currently without a steady income, Pedro Rosa Mendes appears calm in the face of his predicament. “I am not accusing. I simply need an explanation for why they shut me down,” he said.

In a European country that will soon celebrate 40 years of democracy, this should not be too much to ask for.

About the author

Julia Knobloch is a freelance journalist based in New York City.