By Deprose Muchena
On August 24, Mozambicans woke up to news of an attack that engulfed the offices of Canal de Moçambique, one of the country’s independent weekly newspapers. Unknown assailants broke into the Maputo offices of the newspaper in the late hours of the previous night, doused them in petrol and set them alight with a Molotov cocktail. The damage was extensive: all that remained of the newsroom were burnt desks, chairs and computers.
This was clearly a well-orchestrated attack on independent journalism and media freedom in Mozambique, which is protected by the country’s Constitution and other regional and international instruments. The aim? To restrict media freedom, intimidate and harass the newspaper and weaken if not derail its investigative journalism.
The attack came just four days after the newspaper published a story alleging corruption and mismanagement by politically connected individuals and senior government officials at the ministry of mineral resources and energy.
The newspaper had already irked the political establishment by reporting on the ongoing conflict in Cabo Delgado, where hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands of others displaced since 2017, despite the Mozambican authorities preventing local and international journalists from accessing the region to document the conflict.
On 11 March 2020, Canal de Moçambique published a story alleging the existence of an illegal secret contract between the ministry of defence, the ministry of the interior and natural gas companies operating in the restive Cabo Delgado province. According to the article, the two ministries provided security services to the companies, but the payments for the services were deposited into the personal bank account of the then minister of defence, Atanásio Salvador Ntumuke, rather than that of the defence ministry.
Three months later, Canal de Moçambique’s executive director, Fernando Veloso, and editorial director, Matias Guente, were charged with “violation of state secrecy” and “conspiracy against the state” for the March 11 article, which was headlined “The business of war in Cabo Delgado”.
The targeting of Canal de Moçambique over its revelations is a sad reflection of the shrinking space for human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and free press in Mozambique, which have come under increasing attack by the government in recent years. For example, in 2018, Mozambican authorities tabled a law that introduced exorbitant fees for media accreditation. Under the proposals, foreign correspondents living in Mozambique would have been expected to pay more than $8 600 a year to report on the country while local freelance journalists would have to pay more than $500 in accreditation fees. Following global criticism by media watchdogs and other institutions that cherish press freedom, including Amnesty International, this piece of legislation was later shelved.
Despite this positive step, human rights defenders, journalists and media houses in Mozambique continue to come under attack for doing their job and exposing allegations of human rights violations and abuses, as Amnesty International documented in a briefing released last week. We highlighted several recent cases of journalists being arrested for politically motivated reasons, as well as cases where journalists and media executives have been intimidated, harassed, grievously assaulted and targeted for doing their work.
On the same day as the arson attack on Canal de Moçambique’s offices, investigative journalist Armando Nenane was arrested for allegedly failing to comply with Covid-19 regulations. His arrest came after he published a story, on the news website Moz24h.co.mz, about how he deposited money into the former defence minister’s personal bank account in an attempt to verify the story carried by Canal on March 11.
On June 25, police arrested and detained Carta de Moçambique journalist Omardine Omar, who had been investigating allegations that the police were demanding bribes from members of the public accused of violating the Covid-19 related state of emergency. Witnesses say police assaulted Omar before taking him to Alto Maé’s 7th police station where they attempted to coerce him to sign a self-incriminating statement. Omar was released on the public prosecutor’s orders on June 28.
In January 2019, Amade Abubacar, a community radio journalist in Cabo Delgado’s Macomia district, was arrested and arbitrarily detained for several months after he interviewed people who had been displaced from their homes as a result of the violence in the province. During his detention, he was subjected to ill-treatment and denied food, family visits and medical treatment.
On March 27 2018, Ericino de Salema, a lawyer and journalist, was abducted by unknown individuals as he was leaving the National Union of Journalists offices. He endured a severe beating from the perpetrators, who broke his legs before dumping him near Maputo Ring Road, where good Samaritans found him and took him to hospital.
These chilling stories of attacks on journalists in Mozambique are not a coincidence. They demonstrate a well-coordinated, sustained and increasingly brazen attack on the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in the country by the authorities. This escalating crackdown threatens to muzzle journalists or lead them to self-censorship for fear of vicious reprisals for doing their job.
At this point in its history and development, Mozambican authorities can ill afford increasing the country’s risk profile by joining the ranks of countries that are deploying the toxic mix of demonization of the media, scapegoating journalists and creating a climate of fear which limits the search for the truth through media freedom. The Mozambican authorities must respect, protect, and promote human rights, and ensure a safe and enabling environment for journalists. They must immediately stop targeting journalists, suppressing dissent and clamping down on the right to freedom of expression and of media freedom.
Deprose Muchena is Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa.