Angola: “Covering conflict zones came so naturally that before I knew it I was already there”

Maria Luísa Rogério has been working as a journalist for 36 years and has covered several elections across the African continent. She is a senior reporter at the newspaper Jornal de Angola, a member of the IFJ’s Executive Committee and the president of the Ethics’ Committee in Angola. Luísa looks back on her coverage of the military conflict in Angola and shares tips on how to report safely from conflict zones.

Credits: María Luísa Rogério

How would you describe the situation of women journalists in the Angolan media? 

The situation has improved compared to previous years, but there is still a large imbalance. Of the nearly 3,000 journalists with professional licences in Angola, almost 40% are women, a figure that reflects the parity in the universities and higher institutes that teach journalism and media courses. However, the increase in the number of women in the media is not reflected at management level, where the imbalance is striking. To give you an idea, Rádio Nacional de Angola, the group that employs the most journalists, has only one woman director of a news channel. Of the 20 provincial radio stations, only three are directed by women. Of the printed and online newspapers, only one, Metropolitano, of the public group Edições Novembro, is run by a woman.

What are the main threats faced by women journalists in your country?

The major threats stem from the growing climate of insecurity that mainly affects large cities. The profession often means that journalists leave late for work, which puts women in a more vulnerable situation, aggravated by the scarcity of public transport in Angola. Stigmatisation, veiled harassment, psychological violence, attacks and abuse committed over the Internet victimise women on a large scale. 

What obstacles do women encounter in reaching leadership positions in the media industry? 

One of the major obstacles is the lack of feasible public policies for the media sector. Despite the growing number of women in the newsrooms, there is a significant resistance to the appointment of women both at management and even editorial levels. Prejudice, barely disguised machismo and the almost explicit need for women to prove their competence twice over is another impeding factor. On the other hand, the fact that women bear greater responsibility for the home and children, in addition to the large number of single-parent families headed by women, means that many of us are not always in a position to respond to the demands of the profession with the same promptness as our partners.

As a journalist and president of the Ethics Committee in Angola, could you explain the state of press freedom in your country?

Although press freedom and the rights related to the exercise of journalistic activity are clearly enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic, the Press Law and the Journalist's Statute, Angola has experienced some setbacks in terms of press freedom. The laws and political speeches are contradicted by the reality marked by the control of the public media by the public powers, the absence of state incentives to promote the private press as one of the guarantees of pluralism and freedom of expression. The monopolies and oligopolies prohibited by law exist, and paradoxically, the state owns the largest mass media in the country. 

The primary threats come from the excessive control and interference of the political power in the management of the media and in the editorial line-up itself. Lately, the country has recorded assaults on the headquarters of the Journalists' Union and the homes of several professionals. Only computers were stolen. The worsening situation led the Union of Journalists to promote, with the support of the main organisations of the class and, of course, the Commission of the Charter and Ethics, an unprecedented march: for the first time in 47 years of independence journalists took to the streets to protest against threats to press freedom.

Why did you decide to cover conflict zones and why do you think it is important for women journalists to do so?

When I started my career, the military conflict was at its peak in Angola. There were very few women journalists in newspapers and, to a lesser extent, women covering politics. Politics was necessarily synonymous with war and dominated the news. Therefore, covering conflict zones or areas of tension came so naturally that before I knew it I was already there. The first time I boarded a military helicopter, I was terrified. I was the only woman, and I was not yet 20 years old. The second time I was deployed to a conflict zone, a colleague decided to replace me. For some reason, at the end, he did not go to the front. The colleagues I was supposed to go with died as a result of the helicopter crash. So I had only two choices: to quit or to continue. I made the latter choice. 

I think it is important for women to report from conflict zones because we have the sensitivity and "clinical eye" to see far beyond what our eyes can reach. We can also, with the patience typical of our gender, extract information, insist and seek ways to obtain data for news in a subtle way. At the end of the day, it is important to get that message across because it is clear that women can do as well as men in conflict zones. Bathing in a river, travelling standing on a plane with living, mutilated and even dead soldiers, being the only woman sleeping in a military unit with several hundred men in uniform or losing count of the number of acquaintances killed in combat will be mere details. 

You have covered different electoral processes on the African continent, including the general elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2018. ¿What security measures did you take to cover those elections? Could you share some security tips for journalists reporting from conflict zones?

Covering the 2018 elections in DRC was an enormous challenge for me, mainly because of the rising tension in the country and because, somehow, Angola is a country involved in the conflict because of its explicit support for the then DRC government. Therefore, in some circles, Angolans were seen as potential enemies. 

Establishing a good network of contacts in the DRC was one of the main security measures, along with permanent contacts with the Angolan Embassy and the different election observation missions. Being a woman also meant extra precautions, starting with wearing discreet clothes, trousers and flexible shoes. The experience accumulated as a war reporter in Angola made me take precautions such as choosing rooms located at strategic observation points and leaving in case of need. The telephone numbers of local institutions and international organisations were of great help. Fortunately, there were no major problems. A mobile phone with roaming and a local number were essential to send texts to Angola when the Congolese authorities cut off the internet and communications with the outside world.

Any message you want to convey to women journalists around the world on 8 March?

On the 8th of March I would like to send a message of solidarity and encouragement to all the female journalists in the world. I like to define myself as a survivor because I asserted myself professionally in a country at war and, above all, because I am a woman. In other words, we are resilient by nature. Also, a word of encouragement to young female journalists: don't give up! The path is tricky, with many thorns, but it is worth undertaking this extraordinary journey that we call journalism.

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