7 September 2021
Today, the 7 September 2021 has been exactly 17 months since Mozambican journalist Ibrahimo Abu Mbaruco disappeared in Cabo Delgado. His last message was to a colleague saying that the army was coming towards him.
Ibrahimo worked for Palma Community Radio and had been reporting on the violence in the area. Since then, what effort has the government put into finding him and bringing him back to his family? Absolutely nothing.
Since 2017 Cabo Delgado has been ravaged by a fatal conflict between insurgents, the Mozambican military, Russian and South African mercenaries and now the Rwandan and South African armies as well, that has created 800 000 refugees. This violence is deeply linked to the gas industry that has exploded over the last few years. The industry is headed by Total (France), Eni (Italy) and ExxonMobil (US), and is one industry filled with a great amount of treachery in the Mozambican and other states involved, which forms part of the corruption trial currently in the Mozambican courts.
Over the last few months several media outlets have arrived in Cabo Delgado, after at least three years of the area being closed to international journalists.
It is a good thing that Mozambican and international media has finally been allowed there, since free media is a crucial part of any democracy. However, journalists who actually live in Cabo Delgado and were the first to report on the happenings since 2017, have not been allowed to work in the conflict areas, unless they are from state-owned media outlets.
In an article in O Pais 26 August, Cabo Delgado-based journalist Hizidine Acha wrote that journalists from the area are being humiliated by having to report on the topic from a distance, even though they are the ones who know the terrain and the local language. They fear that the lack of reporting in local languages might lead to disinformation among the communities. The article quotes journalist Emanuel Muthemba as saying, “Journalists from here have to be on the front line, because we have basic knowledge about the reality of the province, the people and the languages spoken by the population, which is very important,”; and journalist Assane Issa says “speculation grows that we are not capable of doing this type of coverage – that only those from the country’s capital are. But this is not true, because we are the ones who have been reporting on the daily life of the province.”
In fact, the article continues saying that recently 20 local journalists were invited to cover the conflict, but for reasons they were never told, were never actually able to leave Cabo Delgado’s capital and largest city, Pemba.
But even if they were able to report, the government has made it clear that they will not make it easy. On 11 April, on the ‘Day of the Mozambican Journalist’, even though his general rhetoric has been about free press, President Felipe Nyusi sent a document to O Pais, saying, journalists must report with “rigour, professionalism and patriotism”. He said “the Mozambican journalist should not be a reproducer of wishes contrary to our unity.” And he followed this in May saying that journalists have to be “disciplined”: “To have discipline is to report only the truth, to combat fake news and not to incite violence and hatred.”
This is not freedom. This is a threat. This is saying that journalists have the ‘freedom’ to write or to film or to record for radio, as long as this is in aligned with the state’s narrative. Or else.
The public media and many international journalists are reporting on the violence in the province as only a humanitarian issue created by violence caused by insurgents, and not on how many of these refugees were actually already displaced from their villages, and had lost everything, because of the Afungi Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) Park that Total is building to house the support facilities for the industry. Reporting in this way allows the gas industry off the hook for the part they have played in this humanitarian crisis and conflict, including how Total has left the displaced communities who were relying on them for compensation and aid with nothing as they pulled out of the country when claiming force majeure.
International journalists are protected by having foreign passports. But who is protecting local journalists from non-state outlets, like Ibrahimo, or like Amade Abubacar from the Nacedje Community Radio who was arrested, tortured and held without charge for 3 months in 2019 after interviewing a group of displaced people? Or the journalists of Canal de Moçambique whose office was bombed in 2020 after exposing corruption between the government and gas companies?
In April 2020, Reporters Without Borders and 16 other press freedom organisations wrote an open letter to President Filipe Nyusi, who ignored it, just like the military and relevant government officials did not even bother to respond, and the police treated it like a joke. On 8 June 2020, Ibrahimo’s brother contacted the local police to inform them that he had called Ibrahimo’s phone and it rang. He reported it to the public investigators responsible for finding him, the National Agency for Criminal Investigations. They promised they would look into it, but since then there has been silence.
But we must not stop fighting!
In January, the African Union (AU) launched the Digital Platform for Safety of Journalists in Africa. At the launch, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was AU chairperson at the time said: Media freedom “requires that we rigorously defend the right of journalists to do their work, to write, to publish, and to also broadcast what they like, even if we disagree with some or all of it.. The digital platform for the safety of journalists in Africa is an important tool in promoting the safety of journalists and other media workers across Africa.”
Now they must put their money where their mouth is, by holding the Mozambican government accountable for its violent media oppression and pressurise it to stop, and they must recognise how part of this oppression is to protect the gas industry. The platform was supported by the United Nations, and both they and the AU have the responsibility to find out what has happened to Ibrahimo, and must use their power to do so.
It is clear that Mozambican journalists cannot rely on their state for their protection – the very people who are obliged to protect them, but sadly are reliant rather on non-governmental organisations and media groups – both international, and local, who themselves are putting their safety on the line just by speaking out. When journalists are told they need to report with “patriotism” and “discipline”, it is clear that, just as history has shown, they cannot know that they are safe. They cannot know their colleagues will not be arrested and tortured or that their offices won’t be attacked. They cannot know that they, too, will not disappear and be another Ibrahimo.
We must not stop pushing to find out, where is Ibrahimo?