On August 23rd, the office of popular newspaper Canal de Moçambique was burned down by unidentified individuals. The newspaper is often critical of the government, and is known for its investigative work, particularly pertaining to corruption. The attack comes as the Mozambican government cracks down on press freedom. Coverage of the conflict in Cabo Delgado is especially “sensitive.” Notably, earlier this year the editorial director of Canal, Matias Guente, was charged with “violation of state secrecy” and “conspiracy against the state.” The arrest occurred after he published an article on March 11th, alleging an illegal deal was made between the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of the Interior, and gas companies in Cabo Delgado. In addition, investigative journalist Armando Nenane was arrested on the same day of the Canal arson attack. Nenane had recently published evidence supporting the March 11th articles’ corruption allegations.
The burning of Canal’s office was widely condemned as an attack on freedom of expression. The Mozambican branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) described the act as “barbaric” and harmful to democracy: “There can never be democracy in a society where the institutions of freedom of expression and freedom of the press are systematically victims of intimidation and threat, which is precisely the objective that the attackers intend to achieve.” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa, characterized the attack as a “turning point in the escalating crackdown on human rights in Mozambique. This is a shocking attack on press freedom and the most extreme manifestation yet of the increasing threat to journalists in Mozambique.”
For his part, Guente characterized the arson attack as “a terrorist attack on freedom of expression and against the freedom of the press,” adding that the newspaper’s editorial line “would not bow to fire.” In January, Guente had to be hospitalized after nearly being abducted. Numerous Mozambican journalists have gone missing this year alone. Notably, journalist Ibraimo Mbaruco has not been heard from since April 7th, when he texted a colleague that he was “surrounded by soldiers.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, police “have yet to credibly investigate and report back on [Mbaruco’s disappearance].” Mbaruco had been reporting in Palma, a town in Cabo Delgado province that has been hit hard by the conflict.
Reporting in and on Cabo Delgado has become increasingly dangerous in recent years. ISS Africa’s October 2019 report highlighted the governments suppression of information: “The imposed secrecy which denies journalists and non-governmental organisations access to northern Cabo Delgado makes it impossible to know for certain how many attacks occurred and how many people were killed or injured. The state has… fomented a culture of fear in the area.” Notably, on June 3rd, insurgents shot 17 people in Ilala, Cabo Delgado—but the attack went unreported until Carta de Moçambique published an article on it a month later. Furthermore, until earlier this year, the Mozambican government denied the presence of an insurgency in Mozambique despite hundreds of attacks across three years.
President Nyusi recently denied claims Cabo Delgado is closed to journalists, dismissing any difficulties in access as typical of a war-zone. It is true that the northern region has faced frequent attacks since the insurgency first sprang up in 2017. However, in the past two years, the Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of media outlets and journalists being barred from entry to Cabo Delgado.
Thus, while Cabo Delgado is a war-zone, the government’s policies have further endangered the safety of journalists (civilians more generally). Mozambican forces have frequently been accused of abusing civilians they are supposed to protect. On June 25th, for example, Zitamar reported that police went door-to-door questioning male civilians and, when there was no man home, often abused women. The following morning corpses of 26 civilians taken in for questioning the previous night were found. Authorities have tried to cover up such human rights violations in northern Mozambique by arbitrarily arresting and detaining journalists, harassing them to delete incriminating photos, and denying journalists entry to the region.
The arson attack on Canal de Moçambique’s office is not an isolated event. It took place during a conflict that threatens to destabilize the region, and amidst a government crackdown on freedom of the press. The assailants responsible for the attack are currently unidentified. As MISA Mozambique and Amnesty International have called for, the arson attack—along with the disappearances of journalists such as Ibraimo Mbaruco—must be investigated, with those responsible held accountable.
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