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What is the Mozambican government trying to hide?

March 31, 2021
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#Mozambique, #press freedom, #Cabo Delgado, #corruption
by:Cyril Zenda
The Mozambican government, which stands accused of committing gross human rights violations as it tries to suppress an insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province where gas discoveries have been made, has launched a brutal crackdown on the media. What could it be it trying to hide?

When Thomas, a Mozambican journalist working as a foreign correspondent for an international news agency, was recently asked to obtain an official comment for a story that he had filed regarding some alleged brutalities by security forces, he hesitated. He knew better than to walk straight into a lion’s den. Events of the recent past have taught him and other journalists to tread carefully, as the surface has become increasingly treacherous with each passing day.

“We are back in the old [civil war] days when we used to walk with our backs firmly to the wall and sleep with one eye wide open,” Thomas told FairPlanet, insisting on the use of the English version of his unofficial middle name.

“The danger is real and it is everywhere,” he added.

Media Crackdown Underway

Since the start of an insurgency in the north-eastern province of Cabo Delgado, President Filipe Nyusi’s government has blamed the violence on what it says are Islamist insurgents, but reports and an increasing body of evidence from aid workers and rights groups in the area appear to blame the brutalities on State security agents.

It is these reports that appear to have prompted the government to seek to impose an information blackout on the country. 

In early February, Mozambique’s Interior minister, Amade Miquidade, expelled Tom Bowker, editor of a popular online publication called Zitamar, along with his partner and journalist Leigh Elston and their two children from Mozambique. 

While Bowker’s expulsion was done under the excuse of violating immigration laws, observers said the real reason was his publication’s relentless coverage of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

According to Bowker, who is a British citizen, he was expelled for allegedly having been receiving accreditation as a foreign correspondent on “false pretences” over the past five years as he could not prove that his news agency was legally registered in the United Kingdom. There is no press registration in the United Kingdom.

Cabo Delgado Hot Potato

The expulsions came a few months after the August 2020 firebombing of Canal de Mocambique, a local newspaper that has been highlighting corruption and government brutality in the Cabo Delgado conflict.

In early February, it was reported that the Pope, under pressure from Maputo, withdrew Luiz Lisboa, the outspoken Bishop of Pemba - an area covering Cabo Delgado province. Lisboa had strongly defended the people of Cabo Delgado and was head of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. 

The bishop, as well as  many academics and journalists, have been pointing to the roots of the war as growing poverty and inequality and the way just a small Frelimo (ruling party) elite benefits from the Cabo Delgado gas and rubies. 

The government has sought to portray the war as entirely Islamic State destabilisation from the outside, and does not want reports suggesting that elite greed and police and army misconduct could actually be forcing people to join the insurgency.

Previous Attempt Foiled

In 2018, a year after the insurgency started, the Mozambican government made an attempt to strangle the media by issuing a law imposing exorbitant fees ranging from $500 to $8,500 on local and foreign journalists.

The legislation was only revoked in May 2020 following a Constitutional Court petition by six organisations: Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Mozambique chapter, Association of Journalistic Companies, National Forum of Community Radios, Centre for Public Integrity, Mozambican Bar Association and the Emergency Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Freedoms. 

The court ruled that the decree was unconstitutional since it introduced prohibitive costs on the exercise of the journalism profession for foreign correspondents and local freelance journalists.

Renewed Onslaught

After the previous attempt to muzzle the media failed, the Maputo administration had decided to bring about the harsh press laws through an Act of Parliament. The Council of Ministers has proposed broad media laws to the Frelimo-controlled Parliament, where approval is almost a certainty. Current press laws require the registration of printed periodicals only, and journalists do not require press cards.

However, the proposed laws cover all media outlets: regular periodicals, one-off publications, Internet publications, and radio and television stations. 

The proposed laws also require publishers to submit 16 documents, including their source of funds. A licence must be issued before they publish their first issue. Any publication not registered is considered “clandestine” and police and local authorities must close them.

Only Mozambican citizens, companies or associations can run publications; foreign publishing companies must be at least 80 percent Mozambican owned. No company can own more than two publications. This registration can be cancelled any time, while embassies and foreign NGOs must declare imported publications to the government for clearance.

A Pattern of Brutal Attacks

However, while the Mozambican government tries to hide its crackdown through a veneer of controversial laws, suspected State goons have relentlessly used violence to instill fear.

According to Amnesty International, journalists, researchers, academics and others who hold critical views about the Mozambican government have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, abduction and torture in recent years.

On 25 June 2020, police arrested and detained Carta de Mocambique journalist Omardine Omar. Omar had been investigating allegations that police officers were demanding bribes from citizens accused of violating COVID-19 restrictions.

On 7 April 2020, Ibraimo Mbaruco, a community radio journalist and newscaster in Cabo Delgado’s Palma district, was forcibly disappeared by the army. 

On 5 January 2019, the police abducted Amade Abubacar and Germano Adriano, two community radio journalists in Cabo Delgado’s Macomia district, as they interviewed Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

On 27 March 2018, Ericino de Salema, a lawyer and journalist, was abducted by unknown gunmen who severely beat him and broke his arms and legs after he expressed a critical view of the government on television.

On 23 May 2016, Jaime Macuane, a professor of political science and public administration at Eduardo Mondlane University, was abducted and taken to an isolated area outside of Maputo, where he was severely beaten and his arms and legs were broken after he criticised the government on television.

On 2 March 2015, Gilles Cistac, a constitutional lawyer and processor at Eduardo Mondlane University, was gunned down in broad daylight in Maputo after he had publicly aired his views on the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique.

Entering a difficult Period

“We are entering into a very difficult period in which the greed and corruption of Frelimo is the root of the civil war in Cabo Delgado,” said Joseph Hanlon, editor of Mozambique News Reports and Clippings, an online publication. 

“Frelimo needs to convince the international community that it must be supported because this is a terrorist war from outside, by Islamic State. And it needs the US and key European countries on board because they are profiting from the gas,” he added. “It cannot accept anyone saying the emperor has no clothes - that the war has local roots. So the press, civil society and academic researchers must be silenced. Others will follow the Bishop of Pemba, Tom Bowker and Leigh Elston[...]”

In a statement, the Southern Africa Editors’ Forum said Bowker’s expulsion comes at a time when journalists and media workers in Mozambique are facing grave danger: “We now believe this comes as part of a media crackdown which includes the firebombing of Canal de Mocambique and a proposal to introduce restrictive media

Journalists set to challenge new laws

Journalists and non-governmental organisations are getting ready to fight the new draft laws.

“We are waiting for the Bill to be presented before Parliament so that we can see what the proponents of the Bill will say before we can challenge it,” said Thomas, adding that together with other journalists they are hopeful of scoring another court victory, based on last year’s court ruling that access to information is a fundamental right.

Image: Chatham House

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
An Aerial view of temporary houses in the Napala Agrarian Center of Metuge District, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique (taken on 24 February, 2021).
© Alfredo Zuniga
Embed from Getty Images
President Filipe Nyusi’s government has blamed the violence in Cabo Delgado solely on Islamist insurgents, but an increasing body of evidence from aid workers and rights groups appear to blame the brutalities on State security agents.
© Roberto Paquete
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