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April 10, 2019

Mozambique: Effective Counter-terrorism Strategies Do Not Include Arresting Journalists

Flag of Mozambique

Flag of Mozambique

Mozambique is headed for presidential, legislative and provincial elections in October 2019.  One of the key issues that should be up for discussion, alongside economic development, systemic corruption and the country’s debt crisis, is the increasing insurgent attacks in the oil and gas rich Cabo Delgado area. It is hard to imagine a subject of more vital interest to the public than its right to know the steps that the Mozambican government, currently led by president F. Nyusi, is taking to ensure that the residents of Cabo Delgado are protected. Since October 2017, the residents of Cabo Delgado have been terrorized by unidentified insurgents who have carried out violent attacks, burning villages, attacking police stations and terrorizing civilians with kidnappings and beheadings. More than 200 people have been reportedly killed and thousands of others displaced as they flee to neighboring towns. The Mozambican authorities have not been forthcoming about the situation, releasing limited public statements despite the severe escalation and gravity of the violence. The government has even reportedly denied the attacks outright in public statements in the past year. Recently, the insurgents attacked a convoy of a United States gas company, Anadarko, resulting in the death of one person and the injury of 6 others. If the attacks in Cabo Delgado continue unabated, it is feared the promised potential of these recently discovered gas reserves may falter and the instability undermine the anticipated reversal in  economic fortunes of an otherwise debt-ridden country that has been ravaged by years of civil war.

Perhaps out of fear that additional attention to the situation will exacerbate the risk of international investors withdrawing or the confirmation of alleged human rights abuses in the region by Mozambique’s own security forces, all of which could be detrimental to president F. Nyusi’s re-election in the eyes of the soon-to-be-voting public, the authorities have  restricted the entry of journalists to Cabo Delgado and  arrested and detained several journalists who have attempted to document the crisis. One such journalist is Amade Abubacar. Abubacar was arrested on January 5, 2019 as he was interviewing Cabo Delgado residents who were reportedly fleeing the insurgent attacks. At that time, he was detained by the military and held incommunicado until his lawyers were able to successfully request his transfer to a civilian prison.  According to local advocates, he has remained in prison in the intervening two months without charge or access to bail.  This has been reportedly justified by the government on the grounds that he is suspected of terrorist activity, which suspicion alone apparently suspends all usual fair trial guarantees. The government bases this accusation on the fact that Abubacar had a list of names in his possession that included individuals suspected of terrorism in the region. Although a local newspaper Carta de Mocambique has confirmed that at the time of his arrest, Abubacar was on an official assignment in the Cabo Delgado region to investigate and report on the violence, to date, the government has failed to bring him before a court where he could present this evidence in his own defense. Of additional and grave concern is that the Mozambican Bar Association has also reported that Abubacar has been tortured while in detention.

The arrest of Amade Abubacar and several other journalists for investigating the killings in the region has been strongly condemned by human rights organizations and United Nations Experts as a violation of Mozambique’s obligation to respect and protect freedom of the media, which includes the rights of its citizens to receive and share information. In a joint statement the United Nations and African Commission Special Rapporteurs have highlighted the critical role that freedom of expression including the media, can play in promoting equality, combating intolerance, and keeping society informed. The people of Mozambique deserve to know what is happening in Cabo Delgado. It is counterproductive for the Mozambican authorities to expend resources arresting journalists reporting on the violence.  Those resources should be used to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violent attacks. A key driver of violent extremism is harsh and brutal rule and failure to respect human rights. The arrest and detention of journalists who are seeking only to share the plight of the residents of Cabo Delgado is not the way to address the crisis in Cabo Delgado. Journalists are not criminals.