The expulsion of a British journalist from Mozambique is part of a wider crackdown on independent reporting in the southern African country amid a bloody conflict that threatens the government's plans for developing natural gas deposits, media observers say.
The expulsion follows a monthslong ordeal in which authorities said Zitamar was not properly registered. But media researchers — and Bowker — say they believe Mozambique's government is trying to stifle his outlet’s reporting on a conflict in northern Mozambique's gas-rich Cabo Delgado region.
Founded six years ago, Zitamar is one of the leading English-language news sites in Mozambique and has reported extensively on the Cabo Delgado fighting, which erupted in 2017 following plans to extract natural gas.
Government forces are fighting local militants and Islamist insurgents accused of carrying out mass beheadings in a conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 2,000 people and forced 500,000 others to flee. Analysts have highlighted the presence of Russian mercenaries in the region, and government forces have been accused of carrying out abuses against civilians.
Restrictions on access to the conflict zone, however, make verifying incidents difficult.
Bowker told VOA he was expelled on orders of the Interior Ministry after Mozambique's press regulator and Information Office, Gabinfo, released a statement revoking his press credentials January 29.
In that statement, Gabinfo accused Bowker of representing himself as a correspondent for a foreign media outlet, while owning and running Zitamar from Mozambique.
Zitamar's website says it is "written and edited in Maputo and London — with contributions from a network of researchers in Mozambique, the U.S., and Europe," and is published by the London-based Zitamar Ltd.
Gabinfo director Emilia Moiane told VOA "there is no evidence of [Zitamar's] international existence."
Bowker said such justification is “ridiculous," and said the Gabinfo statement included false claims about ownership of a U.K. company. Bowker said the press regulator is claiming the site is not a foreign news outlet.
"They wanted proof from the U.K.’s equivalent press regulator, because Zitamar’s regulated in the U.K.," he said. "But that [type of regulator] doesn't exist in the U.K."
He also said authorities did not let him explain himself or correct any registration issues.
Bowker says he believes the expulsion is connected to Zitamar's Cabo Delgado reporting.
Zitamar works with the U.S.-based nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) to document violence in Cabo Delgado. ACLED catalogs armed conflict, political violence and protests globally.
Moiane of the media regulator did not respond to VOA’s questions about attempts to correct the outlet’s registration and referred other questions to the interior minister.
The assistant to the interior minister did not answer when VOA called and did not respond to a message sent via WhatsApp.
Pattern of harassment
Borges Nhamire, a researcher in Maputo with Mozambique's independent Center for Public Integrity, said the country’s laws restrict foreign ownership of domestic media. But he said that should not have led to Bowker's expulsion.
"If there are some problems with Zitamar’s registration, they should tell Tom what to do to register Zitamar, to legalize what is illegal, but not to expel a journalist," he told VOA. "I don't think that's a good approach for a civilized country.”
Nhamire described Zitamar as "one of the best media outlets in Mozambique," comparable with top privately owned Portuguese-language media houses.
"The substantial difference was that Zitamar was reporting in English, meaning if it was reporting in English and reporting in Mozambique, its audience was foreigners, donors and investors,” Nhamire said.
He said Bowker's expulsion cannot be seen as an "isolated case,” but fits a pattern of restrictions on journalists working on Cabo Delgado.
In early 2019, military personnel arrested journalists Amade Abubacar and Germano Daniel Adriano, who were reporting for local radio and TV stations on the region. They were released on bail after three months.
Another radio journalist in Cabo Delgado, Ibraimo Mbaruco, disappeared in April 2020 after calling colleagues and telling them he was being surrounded by military. He has not been heard from since.
And in the capital, Maputo, in August 2020, arsonists attacked the Canal de Moçambique newspaper, which is seen as critical of the government corruption and its response to attacks by militants.
'A real crackdown'
Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Bowker's expulsion "sends a chilling message" to Mozambique's media community.
“Journalists in Mozambique, especially those covering the conflict in Cabo Delgado, have been arrested, harassed or have gone missing," she said. "Bowker’s expulsion is another example of the lengths the government will go to control reporting in Mozambique.”
Joseph Hanlon, a U.K.-based journalist and academic who writes newsletters on Mozambique, described recent actions against the media there as "severe."
"Mozambique has had up until now a very free press with very few restrictions on the press, and under the present government there’s a real crackdown, and it is about the civil war in Cabo Delgado,” Hanlon, a regional expert on Mozambique, told VOA.
Hanlon said the fundamental issue is differing portrayals of the conflict in the resource-rich region.
"The roots of the civil war are because of the discrimination against ordinary people in Cabo Delgado. Poverty has been increasing, inequality has been increasing, [but] it’s very wealthy with gas and rubies,” he said. “But the Mozambique government wants it to be seen purely as attacks by Islamic State and does not want to accept that it’s about poverty, inequality, greed.”
Mozambique’s president has said that militants in the region are exploiting poverty to recruit young people. President Filipe Nyusi also said the solution requires more than a military response. "We recognize the need to boost socioeconomic development and promote greater social harmony, because the solution to the problem in Cabo Delgado is not just military," he said in August.
Hanlon, along with Nhamire and Bowker, also decried a media bill up for debate in Mozambique's parliament. They said the legislation, if passed, would make it harder for both foreign and domestic journalists to work in Mozambique.
Bowker, who has flown to France with his family, said his expulsion will not affect Zitamar’s output.
"There’s no reason it should suffer a hiccup," Bowker said. "It's bigger than just me, bigger than me and my wife. It's a team in Maputo, and we have people in London, New York, Athens, and now we’re [going to] be in France in the immediate term."
He added, “It remains to be seen whether the journalists who correspond for Zitamar from Mozambique will now suffer pressure when the authorities realize that expelling me from the country doesn't jeopardize Zitamar.”
Editor’s Note: Bowker and the author of this article have worked together on a previous VOA article about the conflict in Cabo Delgado.