MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE - Staff at a weekly Mozambique newspaper are refusing to let an arson attack stop them from reporting. Canal de Moçambique published its regular Wednesday edition, just three days after the newsroom was firebombed.
Speaking in front of the newspaper’s office Monday, Matias Guente, executive editor of Canal de Moçambique, said he believed Sunday’s attack was retaliation for the paper’s reporting and described the arson as a “terror attack on freedom of expression and against press freedom.”
The paper’s editorial line "will not bow before the fire," Guente said. The office was attacked with petrol bombs, and a container of gasoline was found at the site, the Associated Press reported.
Police are investigating the blaze in Mozambique’s capital Maputo, which damaged the publication’s newsroom and equipment.
The paper, owned by the media group Canal I, prints about 10,000 copies weekly and has about 50,000 subscribers to its daily news website, CanalMoz.
“This attack represents a serious blow to the freedom of the press, one of the foundations of democracy,” the local civil society organization Center for Democracy Mozambique said in a report Monday.
Canal de Mozambique is known for its critical coverage of the government, including authorities’ responses to attacks by Islamist militants, as well as corruption and scandals such as the “tuna bonds” case. In January 2019, Mozambique indicted 18 individuals on charges including abuse of office and embezzlement after some funds from loans to bolster the country’s state fishery were allegedly diverted, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Guente, the editor, has also been previously harassed and in December, attackers attempted to abduct him, VOA Portuguese reported at the time.
Attack on democracy
President Filipe Nyusi condemned the arson attack and ordered authorities to investigate.
“Freedom of the press is a pillar of democracy achieved by Mozambicans and must be protected," said Nyusi in a statement posted to his Facebook page.
A tent was erected after the attack so the paper’s journalists could work because “everything was left in ash,” said Guente. The paper has around 17 staff in the capital, as well as reporters in most of Mozambique’s 10 other provinces.
Mediacoop, the publisher of Savana and Mediafax, also invited Canal to use its premises and facilities to ensure it can continue publishing, the Associated Press reported.
The Mozambique branch of the regional press freedom group, Media Institute of Southern Africa, condemned what it described as a “barbaric and cowardly attack” on the paper, and called for authorities to investigate.
MISA said the arson should be viewed as part of a wider attempt to curtail freedoms in Mozambique.
“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,” the organization said.
The U.S. Embassy in Mozambique also called for an investigation.
“Independent media entities like Canal de Moçambique play a critical role in building a functioning democracy that relies on a flow of information and a vibrant exchange of views and opinions,” the embassy said in a statement.
Borges Nhamire, a researcher with the Center for Public Integrity and former journalist at Canal de Moçambique, told VOA Portuguese the arson comes amid increased pressure on the media.
In the past five years, “journalists were abducted, beaten. We have seen an increase of human rights abuses against journalists, opinion makers and researchers,” Nhamire said.
International media rights groups said the attack appeared to be part of a wider attempt to silence journalists.
“Journalists in the country have been repeatedly targeted by politicians and the ruling elite to prevent them from writing about widespread corruption,” Ravi Prasad, director of advocacy for the Vienna-based rights group International Press Institute, (IPI) said in a statement.
The Mozambique Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.
The IPI said in its statement that a journalist in the country’s restive Cabo Delgado province is still missing.
Ibraimo Mbaruco, a reporter with Rádio Comunitária de Palma, has not been heard from since April 7, when he messaged a colleague to say he was "surrounded by military."
Rights organizations and the journalist’s family say they suspect Mbaruco was forcibly taken by the military.
VOA's calls to the spokesperson for Mozambique's Ministry of Defense at the time of the journalist’s disappearance went unanswered.
Augusto Guta, the police spokesperson in Cabo Delgado, told VOA on Wednesday that police continue to investigate. “It is our task to guarantee the physical integrity of all people in our territory,” he said via the WhatsApp messaging app.
Guta called on citizens who may have information to come forward.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RFS) says “press freedom is in retreat” in Mozambique. The country ranks 104 out 0f 180 countries, on a scale where 1 is the most free, on the media watchdog’s Press Freedom Index.
RSF cited pressure on independent journalists, particularly during last year’s presidential elections, and risks of attack or arrest for reporters trying to cover an Islamist insurgency in the north.
This story originated in VOA’s Portuguese Service.