Last week, Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco, a renowned Mozambican academic, and Fernando Mbanze, editor of the independent newssheet Mediafax, faced trial in Maputo, due to an opinion post published on Facebook back in 2013. The post, written by Castel-Branco and published on his Facebook page in November 2013, was a personal and strong critical reflection about President Guebuza’s administration. Unfortunately, it was interpreted by the State Prosecutor’s Office as act of libel against the president, something classified as a crime against state security in Mozambique. Fernando Mbanze and Fernando Veloso (editor of Canal de Moçambique) were then accused of ‘abuse of freedom of press’ for publishing the post as an open letter in their respective newspapers.
Certainly the Facebook post contained a strong critique to the government. It started with an emphatic ‘Mr President, you are out of control’, followed by a long list of recurring problems in the country, and which, as Castel-Branco stressed, resemble ‘the preludes to fascism’. In fact, many critics would agree with Castel-Branco comments, in particular regarding Mr Guebuza’s attitude of prioritizing the international capital (and his own business) at the expenses of the well-being of the ordinary Mozambicans. Many would also back Castel-Branco’s final appeal for the President to leave his post and give back to the people the country’s resources.
Harsh criticism, definitely. But ‘crime against state security’?!! Really?
Unsurprisingly, the trial unleashed strong reactions worldwide. Amnesty International launched a petition asking for the withdrawal of the accusation. Academics worldwide shared their concerns with the case and publicised the petition. Ultimately, even those who disagreed with the content of Castel-Branco’s post rejected the accusation that it constituted an act of libel. As the trial took place, members of NGOs and the press marched outside the court, calling for freedom of speech and evoking words from famous Mozambican journalist Carlos Cardoso, murdered in 2000, while investigating a major national corruption scandal.
As noted by journalist Paul Fauvet, it is doubtful that the trial should have taken place in the first place, as, due to the renewed conflict in Mozambique and subsequent negotiations between Renamo and Frelimo, an amnesty law was passed related to security offences ‘of any nature’ committed between March 2012 and August 2014, which could easily cover the case of the Facebook post. Castel-Branco and Mbanze, however, did not invoke the amnesty law because this would have meant admitting having committed a crime. Yet, the fact that the trial was carried, even though the prosecution did not present any single witness, and even though many personalities inside Frelimo — brought to court by the defence — did not agree with the accusations, makes us wonder what the purpose of the trial was.
If anything, the case is particularly outrageous in the current context where Mozambique is still struggling to consolidate peace after the renewal of conflict in 2013. The fact that academics and journalists are prevented to say what they think gives no reassurance to members of opposition parties or ordinary people to do the same.
In fact, and unfortunately, the trial of Castel-Branco and Mbanze is just one of the many cases were freedom of expression has been attacked in Mozambique. Coincidentally (?), just 3 days before the trial, journalist Paulo Machava, editor and owner of the electronic newspaper Diário de Notícias, who was also organising a manifestation to be held against the trial of Castel-Branco and the two journalists, was murdered while doing his morning exercises. He was shot by men who were following him in a vehicle. While the reasons behind the murder are unknown, the episode contributes to a climate of pressure and fear among journalists in the country.
Earlier this year, in March, Giles Cistac, a prominent constitutional lawyer was also shot outside a café, dying in surgery a few hours later. Cistac had worked in Mozambique for 22 years, helping draft laws, government contracts and other official documents. Prior to the attack, he had argued that devolution of power from the central to provincial governments (an agenda pushed by Renamo and fiercely resisted by Frelimo) was not unconstitutional. Whereas this could have been the reason behind his murder, there were also reports that Cistac was assassinated because he uncovered details of a suspicious £200 million shipbuilding contract between France and an unspecified Mozambican company. Either way, he was murdered because he disagreed and dared to question things that, so it happened, challenged powerful interests.
Moving beyond these more ‘famous’ cases, many cases of suppression of freedom and/or attempts of press control still take place in Mozambique on a day-to-day basis. According to Freedom House, political interference into media content occurs occasionally in Mozambique. In 2013, for instance, there were several cases of politically motivated appointments or dismissals of editors. Two of these cases included the Jeremias Langa, editorial director of the independent daily O Pais and the independent television station STV, and Rogerio Sitoe, editor of the state-owned daily Notícias. Both were dismissed after their organizations ‘came under fire for being too critical of Guebuza’s government’. Other incidents included journalists being harassed or detained by local police or security forces. The renewal of conflict also put journalists under threat, several being victims of attacks while investigating conflict-related events. In this context, it is unsurprising that self-censorship among journalists is a huge problem, especially in rural areas outside the capital.
It should be noted that the legal environment for press freedom and access to information has improved considerably in Mozambique in recent years. For one, the 2004 revised Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, explicitly protecting journalists and granting them the right to not reveal their sources. Moreover, in November 2014 the Mozambican Parliament passed an access to information (ATI) bill, which will oblige public bodies, and private bodies invested with public powers, to release information upon request. Mozambique is one in 14 African countries that have specifically passed a law guaranteeing the right to access to information. Despite this, several limitations still exist, one certainly being the limitations of the Constitution in the case of national security issues — which has lead to the above trial. Another major problem is the gap that exists between the formality of the law and its implementation. Moreover, and also problematic is the fact that, with due exception, media in Mozambique is still mostly controlled by the state.
In this context, the case of Castel-Branco, Mbanze and Veloso should be seen as a thermometer of the current state of freedom in Mozambique. On the hand, it shows that many limitations still exist. On the other hand, it also shows the much bigger commitment that exists among academics, journalists, civil society as well as important political figures, to freedom of expression and how willing they are to push the boundaries of democracy so that criticism may become a regular exercise of citizenship, and not a reason for fear.
The verdict of the trial will be presented on 16 September. As noted by Castel-Branco, “Whatever the outcome, whether we are found guilty or not, if the debate is in the open we win and Mozambique wins”. Let’s hope so.