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Mozambique president warns media over Cabo Delgado coverage

President Nyusi yesterday encouraged the Ministry of Defence to guard against 'misinformation' that could hurt its image and damage national unity - but acknowledged a need to improve respect for human rights

President Filipe Nyusi yesterday warned of a “growing tendency to misinformation” and “attempts to manipulate public opinion” on social media platforms with regard to the war in Cabo Delgado province.

Speaking at the launch of this year’s Consultative Council of the Ministry of National Defence, Nyusi — who was Minister of Defence before becoming Frelimo’s presidential candidate in 2014 — said he was “concerned” that some members of the press “instead of being guided by professionalism end up deliberately or innocently being used to the advantage of the enemies or of the terrorists ... [promoting] the resurgence of violence and mistrust among Mozambicans.” He did not specify which publications he was referring to.

Listen to Nyusi's address here:

[audio mp3="ério-da-Defesa-Nacional.mp3"][/audio]

Nyusi told soldiers that “vigilance starts with you” and that they shouldn’t “be denigrated, deliberately or passively,” without holding those responsible for spreading misinformation to account.

State news agency AIM interpreted this to mean that soldiers should be more careful to stop information — or misinformation — about the war being leaked to social media from within their own ranks. However, Nyusi’s wording was ambiguous, and an alternative interpretation is that he was giving tacit consent for the military to suppress journalists who report on any negative behavior by the defence and security forces (FDS).

The government has always “treated the press as an enemy,” researcher and social activist Borges Nhamire told VOA, who is concerned that the president’s statements "give carte blanche to the army and local governments to be repressive with the press."

The president also called on members of the armed forces and the police to ensure they respected international human and humanitarian rights — which he said would aid the government’s efforts to stop the spread of misinformation.  “The exhortation we make to professionals or operators of social networks and media will be more effective, the more we manage to expunge practices from the heart of our FDS, behaviours [of] indiscipline, and practices of the terrorists who attack us,” he said.

The armed forces have claimed that videos apparently showing them abusing human rights — including one particularly shocking video of the shooting dead of a naked and defenceless woman — were sophisticated fakes created by the insurgents active in Cabo Delgado, rather than the evidence of human rights abuses that they appear to be.

That stance was endorsed by a parliamentary commission, dominated by the ruling party, that recently investigated the question of human rights in Mozambique’s two conflict zones: Cabo Delgado and the central provinces of Manica and Sofala. Human rights organisation Amnesty International, however, has said it is confident that that and other videos showing human rights abuses by Mozambican soldiers are genuine.

Crackdown on the press

Nyusi’s concerns that Mozambican media may be being manipulated by terrorists, comes at a time of concerns of a crackdown on the freedom of the press in Cabo Delgado.

Some of Nyusi’s most vociferous supporters earlier this year called for the ‘extra-judicial’ punishment for journalists who are perceived to be acting against the government’s interests.

On Tuesday, two journalists from Media Mais TV were beaten in Nampula when they were reporting to a displaced family, VOA reported.

Ibrahimo Mbaruco, a community radio journalist, disappeared in Palma in April this year after warning friends that he was “surrounded by soldiers”. He remains missing seven months on.

Last year, journalist Amade Abubacar was arrested while taking photographs of displaced people in Macomia, was beaten and held — sometimes in solitary confinement — for 108 days, without trial, before being released. Abubacar is still facing charges of having acted against the interests of the armed forces.

Frelimo strengthens propaganda, as foreign journalists are blocked

Nyusi’s warning against misleading online propaganda comes roughly two weeks after the launch of a new Frelimo propaganda website, called Frelimo 1962. Internet site ownership data shows it was established by the same organisation, Defesa MZ, which earlier this year set up a website called Notícias de Defesa, which carries news about the war in Cabo Delgado, alongside official pronouncements from the Mozambican ministries of the interior and defence.

When Notícias de Defesa appeared in June 2020, Zitamar asked both ministries about it, and both denied it had anything to do with them. Nevertheless, the site apparently has privileged access to photographs from the conflict in Cabo Delgado, which it accompanies with pro-government reports on the progress of the war.

Meanwhile, the Mozambican government appears to be obstructing journalists from visiting Cabo Delgado — despite President Nyusi’s claim that the province is open to journalists.

Speaking at the launch of the Northern Integrated Development Agency at the end of August, Nyusi said “Unlike false news of people who are displaced from the stage of events, the province of Cabo Delgado is not closed to journalists.”

However, Zitamar is aware of at least three applications that have been made to the authorities this year by journalists outside Mozambique to visit Cabo Delgado — which have either been refused or are still waiting for a response months after they were submitted. It should be noted however that the State of Emergency to prevent the spread of the covid-19 has also complicated travel to Mozambique this year.