2021: a bad year for freedom of expression in Mozambique amid human rights crisis in Cabo Delgado

Cabo Delgado: human rights and humanitarian crisis

The northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado has been the site of an armed insurgency and conflict since October 2017, claiming thousands of lives and displacing an estimated half of the province’s population. In the report “”What I Saw Was Death”. War Crimes in Mozambique’s Forgotten Cape”, published in March 2021, Amnesty International said that civilians are caught between several fighting forces – armed Islamist groups, government forces, including military and police, and the private military group Van Dyck Advisory Group – and that all have committed violations under international humanitarian law, including war crimes. Meanwhile, foreign military forces, including from Rwanda and South Africa, have been deployed

Additionally, Human Rights Watch also indicated other violations in Cabo Delgado, such as allegations of sex-for-aid, use of child soldiers by Al-Shahab and restrictions to the movement of displaced people seeking safer areas.

Meanwhile, there has been limited access for CSOs and media to report from Cabo Delgado. Although Justice Minister Helena Kida said, during Mozambique’s Universal Period Review (UPR) examination at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, that authorities have given access to CSOs and national and international media to report in Cabo Delgado, but that insecurity hampers access, Human Rights Watch responded, in its outcome statement in October 2021, saying that this does not meet reality on the ground:

“International media groups continue to report unnecessary restrictions in getting permission from state institutions to access districts in northern Cabo Delgado, and local journalists continue to suffer harassment and intimidation from government security forces. We urge the Mozambican government to stop silencing the media in Cabo Delgado, and immediately allow public scrutiny of the military operations in the province.”

In May 2021, humanitarian group Doctors without Borders (MSF) said in a statement that insecurity and bureaucratic hurdles, such as the issuing of visas and obstacles preventing the import of supplies, restrict the humanitarian response in Cabo Delgado, adding that the response does not meet humanitarian needs in the province.

Human rights group condemns threats, hate speech and vilification of activists, journalists

In an open letter to President Felipe Nyusi in February 2021, the Mozambican Network of Human Rights Defenders (RMDDH) highlighted and condemned campaigns of threats, hate speech and vilification against human rights defenders, activists, academics, civil society organisations and independent media, especially those who denounce bad governance, abuse of power, corruption and human rights violations. Some of these campaigns, according to RMDDH, are led by well-identified people close to power, while impunity reigns for those who commit these acts.

Expression

Several journalists assaulted, detained

Several journalists were physically assaulted and intimidated in the past year, with some briefly detained, as documented by press freedom organisations Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), MISA Moçambique (Instituto para a Comunicação Social da África Austral – Moçambique) and Forum of Community Radios (FORCOM - Fórum de Rádios Comunitárias).

A group of about 10 police officers surrounded Imprensa Paralegal journalist Armando Nenane on 2nd October 2021and confiscated his phone before escorting him to a nearby police station. Nenane, who was covering a road accident, including by posting pictures and videos of the accident on his Facebook page, told CPJ that at the police station he was asked to unlock his phone and erase footage of the scene. When he refused, a police officer reportedly slapped him in the face. Another police officer demanded his press documents, which were handed over after Nenane’s wife brought the journalist’s press card and identification, and the journalist was released. Nenane returned to the accident scene, where he was detained again and brought back to the police station in a police van. He was reportedly handcuffed for a period of 15 minutes, before he was released without charge.

On 9th September 2021, police officers beat and detained at least six journalists in Nampula, while they were covering a protest against alleged delays in the payment of financial relief in response to COVID-19. Journalist José Junior and cameraman Manuel Tadeu, who both work for Haq TV, told CPJ that they were beaten by police on their legs and backs with batons and that their equipment was confiscated. Afro TV’s reporter Emerson Jaoquim and cameraman Osvaldo Sitora were roughly detained by police, with the latter saying he was punched in the back, despite wearing an Afro TV vest. Celestino Manuel of Media Mais was beaten with batons on his legs, back and buttocks, handcuffed and detained. His camera was also confiscated. Leonardo Gimo of the broadcaster Sucesso was also detained.

The six journalists were released without charge and their equipment returned after having been detained for an hour. Spokesperson for the police, Dércio Samuel confirmed the detentions, alleging that the journalists did not have professional identification, but denied the physical assault.

Just a few months earlier, on 28th June 2021, municipal police physically and verbally assaulted four journalists in Nampula – Leonardo Gimo of Sucesso TV, Faizal Abudo of TV Muniga, Simão Mugas of TV Muniga and Emerson Joaquim of Afro TV. According to the reporters, they were at the police headquarters to verify reports of the alleged detention of three activists of the Association Mentes Resilientes, reportedly after they had denounced alleged police brutality against an informal trader.

On 23rd July 2021, municipal police officers physically assaulted two journalists from the community radio station Cantandica, in Báruè, Manica province, and confiscated their recording devices and mobile phones. The two journalists – Marcos Nazário Tenesse and Naima José Gimo – were covering a dispute between informal street vendors and a police team deployed to forcibly implement and collect a raise in taxes from 10 meticais daily to 500 meticais monthly, according to MISA Moçambique. When the police officers noticed the presence of the reporters, they assaulted them. In August 2021, the District Court of Báruè sentenced three police officers to two months in prison, converted to a fine, and the payment of damages, following the filing of a complaint by FORCOM and MISA Moçambique.

Journalist of independent media outlet expelled

On 16th February 2021, Mozambican authorities expelled Tom Bowker, UK national and co-founder and editor of online news outlet Zitamar News, and banned him for a period of ten years, in what observers say is part of a wider crackdown on independent reporting in Mozambique, and in particular an attempt to stifle and silence Zitamar News, that has reported extensively on the conflict in Cabo Delgado.

For months, Bowker and Zitamar News have been in dispute with media and information office Gabinete de Informação (Gabinfo) and immigration authorities, who claim that Zitamar is not properly registered and that Bowker does not have the right to work in Mozambique. On 29th January 2021, Gabinfo released a note revoking the journalist’s press accreditation, saying that he has been “unable to provide documents proving Zitamar News’ registration abroad”. Bowker said that he has not been given the opportunity to explain himself or to resolve any registration issues of the media outlet, and believes his expulsion is connected to Zitamar News reporting on the conflict in Cabo Delgado.

MISA Moçambique has condemned the decision, saying it was arbitrary and that proper legal procedures were not followed. Angela Quintal of CPJ commented:

“Journalists in Mozambique, especially those covering the conflict in Cabo Delgado, have been arrested, harassed or have gone missing. Bowker’s expulsion is another example of the lengths the government will go to control reporting in Mozambique.”

Contentious draft media bills

Almost 30 years after the adoption of the 1991 Press Law, a draft Social Communication Law covering written media, and a draft Broadcasting Law covering radio and TV, were approved by the Council of Ministers in December 2020 and presented before the National Assembly, with parliamentary hearings in March 2021. Media and press freedom advocates have raised their concerns on restrictions in these draft laws. Below are some of the concerns raised:

  • In the draft laws, the rebroadcasting of news programmes from foreign broadcasters would be prohibited while foreign broadcasters will no longer be allowed to use open signal frequencies. In addition, foreign media outlets will only be allowed to have two correspondents to cover Mozambique. Deutsche Welle for example employs 15 correspondents to cover Mozambique.
  • Another contentious issue in the draft laws is the establishment and appointment of a new media regulator, managed and controlled by the government, which according to observers would lack independence. Under the draft law, the current Superior Council for Social Communication (SCSC), on which elected journalists sit, would be abolished.
  • Professional licences will in addition become mandatory for journalists, to be issued by a newly established entity, which alarms some critics in that this will allow authorities to stifle independent and dissenting voices.
  • Certain press offences remain criminalised under the draft law.

Report on press freedom in Mozambique: 32 violations in 2020, the highest in five years

In its annual report published in May 2021, MISA Mozambique said it had registered 33 violations against journalists, up from 20 violations in 2019, the highest number of violations in the past five years. According to the report, the violations in 2020 took place in a context characterised by an intensification of the armed conflict in Cabo Delgado, the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration of democratic processes. The top violation in 2020 was physical assault of journalists (10 out of the 33 registered violations), followed by threats (5 violations) and detentions (4 violations). MISA noted that “one of the reasons for the growth in the crimes against journalists in Mozambique is the impunity of its perpetrators and inaction of the authorities in the face of these occurrences”.

Association

Arbitrary detention of HRDs

Police officers detained four human rights activists - João Samuel Sipriqui, Tomo João Tomo, Maxwell Abreu and Lucídio Torres Cassicassica - on 20th November 2021 in Moatize, Tete province, during a meeting that gathered residents of the Nhantchere and Bagamoio neighbourhoods to discuss advocacy and ways of pressuring the company Vale Moçambique to implement procedures for reducing the environmental pollution and damage caused by their coal mining operations. According to Ericka Mendes, member of environmental group Justiça Ambiental, the detentions had no legal basis. The arbitrary detentions were condemned by the Mozambican Network of Human Rights Defenders (RMDDH). The HRDs were released on 23rd November 2021.

Peaceful Assembly

On 16th October 2021, a planned protest against a wave of abductions in Maputo was prevented by a heavy contingent of security officers who reportedly handed over a document signed by the mayor of Maputo, banning the protest. The protest organisers, the Associação Médica de Moçambique, said they had informed authorities of the protest, as required by law. In one week, at least two businessmen and one doctor were abducted.

On 11th May 2021, police dispersed a protest in Maputo, organised by students of the Eduaordo Mondlane University, against the recent approval of benefits for parliamentary officials. A heavy deployment of police officers dispersed the protesters, who were holding banners such as “No to legalised theft”. Police claim that the protest was not authorised, while students said they had informed local authorities of the protest, as required by law.