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Mozambique’s brutal war on free speech

NEWS ANALYSIS

Maputo — Last month, the Mozambican government announced plans to impose hefty new fees on foreign correspondents working in the country, including a staggering $2500 for single trip accreditation.

These prohibitively expensive fees made international headlines, and sparked widespread outrage among media bodies. “The high accreditation costs represent an attack on media freedom in the country,” said the Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa.

“These fee increases by the Mozambican government make it practically impossible for independent press to continue working,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. But for Mozambican journalists, the government’s attempt to crack down on foreign correspondents came as no surprise. After all, it is local journalists who bear the brunt of official hostility. They have been operating for years in a dangerous environment and things are only getting worse.

It is not only journalists feeling the pressure, either. Scholars, magistrates, politicians, artists, civil society activists — all are operating in a climate of fear, and some have paid with their lives for speaking out.

The war on free speech began in earnest as far back as 2000, when investigative reporter Carlos Cardoso was assassinated on a street in Maputo. He was investigating alleged corruption in one of Mozambique’s biggest banks. One of the men charged with the killing told a court that the hit had been ordered by Nyimpine Chissano, the son of the then-president Joaquim Chissano.

More recent victims include:

  • Paulo Machava, the founder and publisher of the daily news website Diario de Noticias, who was killed by gunmen in a white pick-up truckwhile he was jogging in the capital;
  • José Macuane, a university professor and political commentator, kidnapped and shot in the legs;
  • Gilles Cistac, a constitutional lawyer, shot in broad daylight in a Maputo café after criticising the ruling party in the press;
  • Jeremias Pondeca, an opposition councillor shot dead by gunmen while on his regular early morning stroll;
  • Mahamudo Amurane, president of Nampula municipality, murdered in his home; and
  • Ericino de Salema, a journalist and human rights lawyer, abducted in central Maputo and assaulted.

One thread ties these incidents together — all the victims had either published work criticising the government or the ruling party, Frelimo, or appeared in the press doing the same.

“People will think that this is a modus operandi of the system here in Mozambique,” said Jeremias Langa, a journalist and the administrator of the Soico media group, which owns broadcaster STV, SFM radio and newspaper O Pais.

“People will be more afraid to speak; we already felt that these manifestations of fear would worsen naturally.”

When it isn’t violent assaults on free speech, it is legal threats. In 2015, for example, the public prosecutor of Maputo instituted criminal proceedings against economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco and MediaFax editor Fernando Mbanze. Castel-Branco was charged with defamation in relation to a Facebook post he had written criticising then-president Armando Guebuza. Mbanze was charged with violating the press law because he republished the offending post as an open letter in MediaFax. Although both were eventually acquitted, they had to undergo expensive and emotionally draining legal proceedings.

This year, Canal de Moçambique editor Matias Guente was charged with defamation and slander after publishing a caricature of former Bank of Mozambique governor Joana Matsombe. Initially, the state requested that he be sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment and a fine of two million meticais (about R500 000).

Fortunately, common sense eventually prevailed and the state asked that the charges be dropped. Ironically, public prosecutor Carlos Banze put it better than anyone when he told the court: “Calling for the conviction of the defendant could amount to a huge setback in the freedoms and fundamental rights that citizens have … Everyone who holds public office is susceptible to public scrutiny, and it is not fitting to use criminal law to criminalise opinion, which will intimidate citizens.”

Empirical evidence backs up journalists’ perceptions that they are under attack. Between 2016 and 2017, there was an 80% increase in violations of the freedom of the press, according the Mozambique chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa).

There were 21 recorded cases of threats and assaults on journalists and spurious criminal cases. For Misa-Mozambique’s executive director, Ernesto Nhanale, this increase has everything to do with Mozambique’s political situation.

It is against this background that the Mozambican government introduced its prohibitive fees for foreign correspondents.

Tom Bowker, the editor of Zitamar News and a foreign correspondent based in Mozambique, said: “I think rates are really too high and can only damage freedom of expression and the diversity of voices in the averages.”

Under the new regulations, he would be expected to pay more than $8 000 for an annual accreditation.

Local media will suffer, too, under the proposed regulations, which envisage a $3 300 fee to register a new publication and an $800 fee to register a new community radio station. The latter sum is far beyond the means of most community radio stations, which are often the only source of news in isolated areas.

“It’s an unbearable amount that compromises the work of those who are the first bodies to deal directly with issues that occur at the local level, where information is scarce,” said Dércio Tsandzana, a journalist and social activist.

Municipal elections are scheduled for next month and presidential elections for next year. This is when politicians are most afraid of the power of credible, independent journalism, making it more dangerous than ever to produce it.

The author is a practising Mozambican journalist writing under a pseudonym for his own safety

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