Mozambique NGOs battle for free civic space

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In this anonymous interview, CIVICUS speaks to a civil society activist in Mozambique concerning the environment for civil society and human rights defenders in the country. There is growing concern that killings and acts of intimidation against critical voices often go unpunished.

In this anonymous interview, CIVICUS speaks to a civil society activist in Mozambique concerning the environment for civil society and human rights defenders in the country. There is growing concern that killings and acts of intimidation against critical voices often go unpunished.

1. Can you tell us about the situation in Mozambique for civil society at the moment, and especially the freedom of expression in the country?

The situation for civil society in Mozambique in general has been deteriorating, especially with regards to freedom of expression and the protection of human rights activists, journalists and academics. Civil society, as the voice of citizens, has noted an increase in restrictions of its freedom of expression. This started with the revival in recent years of the political and military tensions between the old political rivals the ruling party Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and the main opposition party the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO).

Mozambican civil society has used its capacity of mobilising citizens to make demands, to campaign on relevant topics, such as the campaign against a law that would augment the remuneration and benefits of the Members of Parliament and the President, which has attracted many citizens. For example on 18 June 2016, civil society organised a march condemning the political and military conflict, demanding the respect of freedom of expression, asking for accountability for those responsible for the public debt, and standing against the kidnappings and murders that are happening in the country. Although the supreme law of the country – the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique – guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association these rights are not excercised in full in practice.

  • Regarding freedom of expression, there have been several cases of human rights activists and journalists who have been subjected to intimidation, harassment or death threats after expressing constructive criticism on certain aspects of governance. These techniques have been used as ways and attempts to silence civil society  and media voices. Some activists and journalists, such as crime journalist Paulo Machava, have lost their lives while others have been judicially harassed. Machava was killed in August 2015 in the same way as constitutional lawyer Gilles Cistac who was also killed in 2015. Cistac had raised the point that RENAMO’S demand for autonomy of certain provinces was not unconstitutional. Offices of some  civil society organisations and media outlets were broken into in September and October 2016 and robbed of all equipment and certain documents and flash disks.
  • Regarding peaceful assembly – the freedom to realise protests and assemblies as one of the prominent ways of public action – civil society has been confronted with several obstacles by security officers and local authorities. Although the law requires only a notification of local authorities of the organisation of a protest or a public assembly, in practice local administrations often have transformed the notification requirement into an authorisation excercise, hereby granting themselves the power to deny the right to assemble peacefully of citizens and CSOs. Prior to the 18 June march earlier this year, organisers were asked by authorities to cancel the assembly based on claims that authorities had received information that RENAMO soldiers would join the march. There are also recorded cases of intimidation of protestors by the authorities, for example sending an excessively strong police contingent accompanied by dogs to monitor protests as a way to intimidate participants.
  • The Law on Associations that regulates the formation and operation of associations is inadequate, excessively difficult and does not reflect  the reality of CSOs in the country. Several obstacles and barriers exist in the Law on Associations, including the requirement to have at least 10 founding members, and excessive documents are requested in order to register. Another limitation in the law is the provision that associations can be denied legal existence when they have an objective that “offends public morals”. This provision has been used to deny the registration of LGBTI associations, with the exemplary case of the association LAMBDA which has been waiting for legal recognition for nine years. Civil society has been advocating for a revision of this law so as to make it more enabling for civil society in the country.

2. How has Mozambican civil society reacted to these developments?

One of the methods that civil society has used to combat the  situation of increasing restrictions is the organisation of peaceful protests, with a variety  of groups –  social and political groups, social activists, citizens in general, students and CSOs – to call attention to the rights of citizens, and to certain social and governance issues. These protests are often accompanied by public statements in the media and through press releases.

One recent example of such a coordinated action was a protest organised on 18 June 2016 to demand peace from the political parties and the government, as they have been involved in the revival of military clashes and conflict since 2013, after 21 years of peace since the end of Mozambique’s civil war in 1992. Civil society was appealing to them to resolve their differences through dialogue and respect of the rights of citizens. The protest also denounced the increasing costs of living due to the huge public debt of the State and the increasing violations of human rights in the country.

3. How would you characterise the current environment for human rights defenders in Mozambique?

Currently, the situation for civil society activists and journalists in Mozambique is not very safe as there have been several cases of intimidation, harassment, death threats and assassinations in an attempt to silence voices critical of the governance system. For example, prior to the protest march on 18 June 2016, Ms Alice Mabota, president of the League of Human Rights – one of 11 CSOs that organised the protest march – reported that she received death threats. A couple of days earlier before the march, the director and editor of the weekly newspaper Zambezia, João Chamussa and Egídio Plácido, were detained, and interrogated for three hours by the Criminal Investigation Unit of the Police due to an article that the newspaper published. The normal legal procedure was not followed.

Previously, a criminal case was opened against a member of the think tank Institute of Social and Economic Studies (IESE), Professor Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco, for writing an open critical letter on his Facebook page to the then President Armando Guebuza, in December 2013. The media outlets that later published the open letter were also implicated. Although he was  was later acquitted in  2015 by the Judicial Court of the Kampfumo District in Maputo, the case shows the government’s intolerance of dissenting voices.

Several killings and assassination attempts of critical voices have occurred in Mozambique, all followed by impunity as no thorough impartial investigation was conducted. Most recently, Professor José Jaime Macuane, of the Eduardo Mondlane University and political commentator on STV television was abducted by unknown assailants and injured by gunshots in Maputo on 23 May 2016. In August 2015, journalist Paulo Machava was shot dead in Maputo. Last year, on 3 March 2015, renowned constitutional lawyer Gilles Cistac was killed in Maputo in broad daylight. Magistrates have also been targeted, such as State Attorney Marcelino Vilanculos, who was killed on 11 April 2016.

There is currently an absolute absence of mechanisms to protect human right defenders and activists.

4. What support can international and regional groups offer to civil society colleagues in Mozambique?

Regional and international organisations could support civil society in Mozambique through:

  • Training and awareness raising in the formulation of and participation in international processes such as in the area of human rights, especially the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council;
  • Support to carry out workshops and seminars regarding strategies and the elaboration of reports on human rights in the country;
  • Creating more space for the participation of Mozambican CSOs in the UN Human Rights Commission;
  • Technical and financial support for Mozambican CSOs to participate in regional and international spaces, to exchange experiences with other networks in matters of human rights, and to raise awareness on the deteriorating situation of the country, including through the presentation of annual human rights reports;
  • Ensure the protection of human right defenders who are under threat, and being persecuted, and ensure that those responsible are held to account;

Assist in high-level joint advocacy, including at the level of the United Nations and donors, to pressure the government to guarantee civil society rights, without limitations, respect the freedom of expression and the protection of civil society activists.