Comment & analysis
Mass media in Angola: Hegemonic power or power to be subverted?
Rafael Marques de Morais
2009-01-08, Issue 414
For the past nine years, an alternative media has been challenging the status quo of the former Marxist-Leninist regime of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), in power for 32 years in Angola, the oil-rich and yet poverty stricken southern Africa country. In reaction, the authorities initially embarked on widespread arrests, threats, harassment and legal actions against the dissident media which, in turn, had a boomerang effect on the regime, for it attracted greater public solidarity, networking and legitimised such media outlets as the ‘weapons of the weak’, and beacons of democracy.
As a brief political context, it is important to highlight that the country has not held elections since 1992, and therefore constitutionally the state institutions hold no legitimacy, for the constitutional law requires universal suffrage every four years.
This essay explores a new kind of approach to mass media, in Angola, in which subversion has become a two-way street. I will make a comparative analysis with the guerrilla media in Taiwan of the 1970s (Lee, 2003), to argue that the subversion of mass media, as a site of contestation against hegemonic power, is effective when it is part and parcel of strong social and political movements that challenge the status quo.
In contrast, I elaborate on a specific case study of the alternative media campaign, in early 2008, against the takeover of one of the two public state television channels by the president of the Angolan republic’s children to expand their business interests and pleasure. In so doing, I demonstrate that because the campaign has occurred in a social vacuum, efforts to challenge hegemonic power have been be re-appropriated by the regime as useful tools for self-legitimisation in the absence of democratic legitimacy.
For clarity and a better understanding of the mass media role in Angola, both as a tool of the hegemonic power and as a site of contestation against that hegemony, I locate the media in two different, at times overlapping, camps: media power and alternative media.
I refer to media power, a concept broadly articulated by Couldry (2003:39) to encompass chiefly the state and corporate influences over media institutions and productions. I narrow the term here to the state ownership and iron-fist control of the only TV station (Televisão Pública de Angola – TPA), nationwide radio broadcaster (Rádio Nacional de Angola – RNA), the only daily newspaper (Jornal de Angola), and the only news agency (Agência Angola Press – ANGOP) in the country. To this, I adduce the overlapping and influential three commercial FM radios and a recently launched weekly newspaper, Novo Jornal, co-owned by politburo members of the ruling MPLA and the Portuguese Bank Banco Espírito Santo (Semanário Angolense, 2008a), which all serve the regime.
As alternative media I adopt Couldry and Curran’s (2003:7) assertion of it being media production that challenges, at least implicitly, actual concentrations of media power, whatever form those concentrations may take in different contexts. Currently, I also use, within the same category, the guerrilla media concept, for it is embedded in the current forms of political contestation in Angola. For Lee (2003:163) guerrilla media comprises mainly the resource-poor, low-cost, and small-scale media outlets, in which political activism takes primacy over professional journalism. Moreover, these media outlets engage in ‘“hit and run” battles with state censors and the mainstream media by constructing counter-hegemonic realities’. (ibid.) Such outlets in Angola are the Catholic-run Rádio Ecclésia, which only broadcasts in the capital Luanda, the weekly newspapers Semanário Angolense, Folha 8, A Capital, Agora, Angolense and Cruzeiro do Sul, which together print up to 40,000 copies a week for a circulation also mostly limited to the capital.
Lee (ibid.) characterises the guerrilla media as the primary site of contestation in Taiwan (1976–86) for the dissenting voices and protest groups to challenge the legitimacy of the authoritarian party-state and system of patronage-clientele. The Taiwanese guerrilla media, as explained by Lee (ibid.) was an integral part of strong social and political movements. The latter sought to galvanise mass support for the causes of the oppressed, and to undermine power domination by using such media as privileged vehicles of political communication. The Angola case is one in which the guerrilla media is what there is of a consistent social and political movement of contestation, for the mainstream political opposition has been co-opted into a token Government of National Unity and Reconciliation in place for the last 16 years.
Moreover, the existing civil society organisations are, on the one hand, integrally dependent on foreign funding and their often restricting and conflicting agendas, for primary donors like USAID, DFID also represents the interests of the government’s main business partners in the oil sector, the US and the UK. On the other hand, such organisations are either induced and fully patronised by the ruling elite as a counter-measure to thwart the emergence of a genuine movement of contestation or co-opted.
Hence, by way of illustration, I briefly analyse how isolated alternative media is and how the regime re-appropriates its subversive coverage to further strengthen its own hegemonic power. I empirically sample the recent alternative media outcry on the rumoured privatisation of the second channel of Televisão Pública de Angola, in favour of two of President José Eduardo dos Santos’ children, namely Ms Welwitchia and Mr José dos Santos. This channel has been running for a few years with a view to providing the masses with more entertainment, while the first one retains, as its main feature, news information.
There is an element of curiosity here that calls for an explanation and a theoretical framework, which makes this empirical sample more remarkable. The alternative media takes the stand to defend the wholesome maintenance of the most important medium of state propaganda, the state television. This move should be contextualised within the concept of mass media and popular culture as ‘the most important and powerful institutions’ that, according to Strinati (2004:205) control and shape all other types of social relationships.
As a political propaganda tool, TPA has become fossilised by decades of tight censorship and self-censorship. Although no research has been done yet to assess its impact on people’s mindset, empirical evidence contends that a significant number of people tune into it mostly to watch Brazilian soap-operas and a few other entertainment programs. Therefore, one can say that there is a view that it does not have much impact on socio-political relations.
However, the outsourcing of the TPA’s Channel 2 to the president’s children aims at producing the highest possible impact on the masses by introducing a radical agenda of locally produced entertainment programs, never experienced before, since Angola became independent in 1975. Another aim that is clearly articulated in the programming, which includes one on holidaying abroad and motoring, is the promotion of a Western style consumerism, targeting the youth. This is set to construct an image of a prosperous and trendy society, and, as the alternative media has consensually labelled, to be a ‘social anaesthetic’ against the pain of the political and economic exclusion of the majority. Nonetheless, the star programme focuses on sexual fantasies and marketing of sex toys – Sexolândia (Semanário Angolense, 2008b). It is co-hosted by a former Angolan model and Big Brother Africa participant, Tatiana Durão. In an editorial Semanário Angolense pulls no punches in attacking the programme:
‘It is clear that with Tatiana Durão (who performs sex in front of the whole Africa, in the Big Brother house) and certain guests of her kind, we have the Televisão Pública de Angola, paid for by the Angolan people, turned into a den of pornography.’ (Semanário Angolense, 2008c)
For Strinati (ibid:220) consumerism and television have similar effects in disrupting the ‘possibilities for solid and stable identities’, for the first fosters self-centred individualism while the latter is equally individualistic and universal. As a major consequence of this media strand, Strinati (ibid.) posits that ‘the wider collectivities to which people might belong, and the legitimate ideas in which they might believe, tend to be ignored, eroded or fragmented’.
Furthermore, Hall contends that ‘identities can function as points of identification and attachment only because of their capacity to exclude, to leave out, and to render “outside”, abjected.’ In this particular case, their erosion can perform the naturalisation of socio-economic and political exclusion.
Another particular element of concern for the alternative media is the hiring of an ‘army’ of seasoned Portuguese and Brazilian journalists and producers to revamp the media landscape both public and private, which obviously includes Channel 2. This threatens the ability of the alternative media to maintain its mainly political news agenda as the main focus of debate as far as mass media is concerned, and to survive. The emerging private media projects bankrolled by the regime have the financial resources and know-how to drive the insurgent media out of the market, by also poaching their staff. Semanário Angolense (2007) claims that such a strategy, overseen by the president of the republic’s spokesperson, Aldemiro da Conceição, entrusts the defence of the president’s image, the most castigated by the alternative media, in the hands of foreigners and that it will reverse the gains made in terms of freedom of press and of expression.
This is where the workings of hegemony come into play. In a Gramscian sense (Gramsci, 1991:258-9) hegemony here represents the efforts by the ruling elite to dominate the society by consent. In this case it is the consent of impotence by the dominated groups to effectively challenge the status quo.
There was a fierce barrage of attacks on the presidential family by the alternative media for widening its business interests to the media sector, in what is regarded as wholesale privatisation of the state. Instead of responding with violence, as in the past, the authorities decided to respond to the attacks by letting the opposition take the case to parliament. Thereby, the government clarified that it did not privatise the Channel 2, but simply outsourced it to the company owned by the president’s offspring to manage it, and develop a new range of quality programmes (Carlos, 2008).
Then, parliament concluded that there was nothing improper in the affair, giving its seal of approval to the deal, entirely funded by the state. Meanwhile, the opposition, led by the former rebel movement UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), provided an apparent chorus of legitimacy to the president’s children’s business enterprise by lending credibility to the proceedings.
For a further humiliation of its critics, the MPLA’s chief whip, Bornito de Sousa, read out, during the session, a letter sent by the president’s offspring, to reiterate their interest only in the ‘private management’ of Channel 2, and not on privatisation. The end result was that the state now integrally funds a private enterprise, which makes not a single digit capital investment into the project.
An intervention made during the parliamentarian debate, and amplified by the state media, is illustrative of the re-appropriation of negative press to disarm it:
‘A certain media has been portraying the idea that the families of the rulers, such as brothers, children and spouses have no right to work and feeding. This is the idea they [the alternative media] want people to believe in, by manipulating the population.’ (Tany Narciso, quoted by Carlos, 2008)
The alternative media’s summary of the parliamentarian debate, as articulated by Carlos (ibid.), is also telling of its feeling of echoing in the desert:
‘to slip into apathy, and have such lard speeches…it would have been better if the opposition let the matter as it was, and just kept quiet. The opposition had in its hands one of those issues to rally the society and the voters alike, an issue that could as well have catalysed the solidarity of the media. However, the media was defrauded.’
To make matters worse for the alternative media, in April 2008, the government completed the poaching of all the relevant journalists from the Catholic-run Rádio Ecclésia (Costa, 2008) to Televisão Pública de Angola and Rádio Nacional de Angola. It offered far greater financial and material rewards in the face of the priests’ poor management (ibid.), and the bishops’ public disavowal of ‘troublemaking’ journalists to appease the authorities (Semanário Angolense, 2008d). Rádio Ecclésia came to be known as the people’s radio for it gave voice aplenty to the disenfranchised and victims of the system. As a consequence, the position of the alternative weekly newspapers is much weaker, for their outreach is extremely limited to a small urban fringe of Luanda’s five million inhabitants. The radio used to magnify, through reviews and other creative ways, the most critical coverage of the papers.
Hountondoji (1992:361) offers a more practical answer to the conundrum presented by the Angolan case on media and power relations, in the context of Africa’s political curses:
‘The reminder of the everyday may produce the salutary effect of demystification, of a return to what is real beyond the pretentious stream of discourses that obscure it. There is still so much to be said, so many crimes to be uncovered, so many myths to be destroyed; so much suffering to be brought to light, that one finds oneself here almost constrained to begin at the beginning: the purely journalistic reconstruction of facts.’
* Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan, is a journalist by training. He is currently studying for the MSc in African Studies and is based at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/
 On local media sources, the author exclusively references Semanário Angolense, the leading weekly alternative newspaper, for it is the only alternative media with a technically reliable and up-to-date website. This is to facilitate consultation, for an external audience, on some of the issues raised here and without prejudice for the other media outlets as trustworthy sources of information. Nonetheless, the issues hereby addressed are representative of a common mindset of the abovementioned alternative media outlets, as I have observed while in Angola, and through my professional contributions to such media.
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