Maputo (AFP) – Abductions, beatings, surveillance, threats and even fatal shootings — critics of the government in Mozambique say that voicing dissent is increasingly dangerous.
The latest victim is media commentator Ericino de Salema, who in March was bundled by gunmen into a vehicle outside the offices of the Mozambican Union of Journalists in Maputo.
Two hours later, he was dumped on the outskirts of the city with a broken arm, fractured legs and severe bruising.
Salema, who had received threatening phone calls, is an analyst on “Pontos da Vista” (Points of View), a leading show aired by the private STV channel, on which he often criticises government policies.
His assault came less than two years after another commentator on the programme, Jose Jaime Macuane, was abducted, shot four times in the legs and also dumped outside Maputo.
“Is it coincidence that these two people are victims of brutal violence and abandoned in the same area, without anything stolen from them?” Jeremias Langa, the programme’s moderator, told AFP.
“The most visible cause is their public opinions.”
Salema is still recovering in hospital abroad and unable to discuss his ordeal, but Macuane spoke out against his attackers.
“I was the victim of my words,” Macuane, a politics professor at Eduardo Mondlane University, said.
“My kidnappers said that ‘We have orders to make you lame’. Of course, life cannot be the same for me, but I continue to go about my life in public.”
The police investigation of Macuane’s attack soon ground to a halt — as in several other similar cases.
“There was no progress. Investigators recently asked me for my medical report and nothing else was done,” he said.
Other cases include the fatal shooting of French-Mozambican lawyer Gilles Cistac, a law professor at the same university.
He was gunned down in 2015 as he caught a taxi outside a cafe in the centre of Maputo.
Cistac was a vocal critic of the government and had recently spoken on STV in favour of political decentralisation — attracting harsh criticism from government supporters.
Paulo Machava, editor of an independent news website, was also shot dead in 2015 while he was jogging along a busy street in the capital.
Activists have demanded that police halt the attacks and investigate and arrest the perpetrators.
President Filipe Nyusi recently made a rare comment addressing the issue.
“I do not want to say that Mozambique is a country where human rights are fully observed,” he admitted during a speech in London last month.
“(But) we have many radios, many televisions, many private newspapers that write and do everything.”
– Press freedom –
For the opposition Renamo party, his words disguise what it alleges are murky links between the assaults and Nyusi’s Frelimo party, which has ruled since 1975.
“There are political motivations,” Jose Lopes, a Renamo lawmaker, told AFP.
“There can be no freedom when people are abducted, beaten and killed for expressing their thoughts.”
Mozambique had one-party rule in the first 15 years of independence between 1975 and 1990.
Private newspapers were not allowed until after the new 1990 constitution was adopted.
Edmundo Galiza Matos, a Frelimo MP, told AFP that Mozambique “has one of the best laws on the press”.
But Freedom House, a US-based watchdog, has said that “self-censorship by journalists is pervasive” in Mozambique due to fear of government spies.
After de Salema’s assault, the Human Rights Watch group said it had evidence of activists forced to move home and use different cars after vehicles without number plates followed them or parked outside their houses.
“I feel that everything I say is carefully listened to — that makes me measure my words,” said Fernando Lima, a veteran journalist and chairman of the private Mediacoop group consisting of two newspapers and a radio station.
“The attacks will not stop,” he added. “But we have a generation of young people who did not know the one-party era, where nobody could speak.
“Using social networks above all and the press, people will continue to talk.”