Polarised Mozambican media at the state's mercy
The liberal press in Mozambique was born in the early 1990s, at a time when the country was opening up to a pluralist system.
The first multiparty Constitution enshrined press freedom and the right to information.
Based on these changes, the first press law, passed in 1991, sought liberalisation and pluralism of expression in the mass media.
With these political and legal transformations, new media emerged with a management independent of the state, including the newspapers Savana, Zambeze, Magazine Independente, Canal de Moçambique, Público, Sol do Indico, and community and private radio and television stations.
These new papers joined those that had been operating during the one-party state, such as Notícias and Domingo, which, although they have acquired the status of private newspapers, are still tied to and controlled by the government in terms of their content and shareholding structure, because the majority shareholder is the Bank of Mozambique.
Some of the problems affecting the role of the press in the promotion of citizenship in Mozambique concerns their weaknesses, in terms of the sustainability of the media companies and the readers of the newspapers themselves.
For example, most of the national newspapers are distributed in the main urban centres, with the capital Maputo consuming more than half the newspapers distributed in the country.
High levels of illiteracy and weak purchasing power are additional problems.
As in other countries with a weak press, the highly politicised media in Mozambique is used as a space for political disputes.
This scenario has led to polarisation of the media space, with some, particularly the publicly owned papers, tending to report only on government achievements and offering a positive image of the main actors in the Frelimo government.
On the other hand, many of the privately owned papers report corruption scandals and abuses of power, exercising their function as a watchdog and giving more space to opposition parties and activists from civic society organisations.
Because the press is weak in Mozambique, the electronic media (radio, television and the social networks) play a significant role in transmitting information.
Of these, Radio Mozambique (RM) and TV Mozambique are particularly outstanding in terms of their geographical coverage.
In 2005 it was estimated that RM reached about 80% of the population.
A 2005 study held on electoral behaviour in Mozambique cited the radio as one of the main sources of electoral information, with RM reaching 91% of the voters.
Although more wide-ranging in terms of coverage, these media have had strong limitations placed on their editorial work, because of legal constraints and political pressure.
Although the Constitution states that public media should be independent of the government, the administration and other public powers, the way in which they operate is distorted because the nomination of their directors and their budgets depend on the government.
Media coverage of previous elections has been characterised by restrictions on press freedom, largely because media spaces have been controlled by the governing Frelimo.
In 2012 various discreet actions were reported that were intended to restrict press freedom.
These actions were taken by political leaders or on the initiative of some editors, particularly in the publicly owned media, who used their positions to promote political propaganda, as well as by a group of opinion-makers, known as the G40, strategically oriented to defend the interests and image of the ruling party.
In addition, there has been a trend in political parties to seek figures linked to the media or the entertainment industry to amplify the image of their election campaigns and to assist in mobilising the electorate.
For example, the opposition Mozambique Democratic Movement has recruited the journalist and newsreader of Soico Television, Fernando Bismarque, and Frelimo has recruited a popular presenter of entertainment programmes, Gabriel Junior.
This recruitment could represent a risk to the quality of political and electoral debate, given that the selection of these personalities seems to be based solely on the fact that they are in the media, and not for their political capital or relevant role within the political parties.
Latest studies by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) on the behaviour of the news media in covering the presidential, parliamentary and provincial election campaign of 2009 provide substantial evidence of a failure to open the media space to participation by citizens in public debate.
The monitoring of media coverage of the 2009 elections by Misa shows the prevalence of news items based on the routine activities of the political actors (the parties and their candidates). There is little coverage of citizens’ engagement with electoral processes or allowing their voices to be heard.
Judging by the coverage of the 2013 municipal elections, polarised and partisan media coverage is likely to be a characteristic of the 2014 elections.
Public media will continue to favour Frelimo, whereas private media will largely be biased in favour of the opposition.
Although social media networks will provide an opportunity for more diverse information, political actors are increasingly making their presence felt in these media outlets as well.
This is an edited extract of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa report, The 2014 General Elections in Mozambique: Analysis of Fundamental Questions, by João CG Pereira and Ernesto Nhanale..