Maputo's colourful street vendors harass you daily with three, four, five newspapers on the Mozambican capital's busy roads. Don't expect exposés on corruption, mafia-style killings or drug-trafficking though. Poor salaries and mostly non-existent journalism training, fear of retribution and a ubiquitous ruling party cook up a brew of mediocre and meaningless news. By JOHANNES MYBURGH.
Mozambique's media landscape is known to few outside the Portuguese-speaking world, even right next door in South Africa. The politically correct exhort the country's media freedom, but the rotten stench from within taints the credibility of Mozambican journalism.
Mozambican media was co-opted into propagating the one-party socialist ideology of ruling party Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) after independence from Portugal in 1975. A 15-year civil war, 1 million deaths and a crippled economy followed soon.
A new constitution guaranteed multiparty democracy and a free press in 1990, and a media law saw the light one year later. The launch of daily newssheet, Mediafax, cleverly distributed via fax and later email, in 1992, marked the birth of independent journalism.
Radio has the most penetration among the 21.2 million Mozambicans, half of whom are illiterate. The public broadcaster's Radio Moçambique is the largest, offering a national service in Portuguese and programming in 20 languages in all 10 provinces. Dozens of community radio stations pepper the countryside, some started by Unesco, others by the Eduardo Mondlane University or the government.
Public broadcaster Televisão de Moçambique (TVM) is largely state-funded and, like South Africa's SABC, gives preference to the ruling party's activities. Soico's STV is the largest independent station. News bulletins are tucked in neatly between Brazilian “telenovellas”. Independent channel TIM, recently bought by the company of a business associate of Mozambican President Armando Guebuza, completes the local television news offering. Portugal's RTP Africa, and Brazilian channels TV Record and Miramar are also broadcast. Mozambique's migration from analogue to digital broadcasting was announced in January 2011.
State daily, Noticias is the oldest and officially the most-read newspaper with an official circulation of 29,000 (though the real figure is thought to be much less). Its majority shareholder being the Central Bank, the paper mostly covers state activities. “I only read it to find out about government announcements,” says Misa Mozambique information officer Celia Claudina Banze. State news agency Agência da Informação de Moçambique (AIM) is the most blatant Frelimo mouthpiece and freely editorialises on news reports. Independent daily paper O Pais, from the Soico group, is the most prominent independent daily newspaper.
An interesting peculiarity is the journalist co-operatives. Mediacoop, which produces Mediafax and the weekly Savana, is arguably the country's most respected outlet and the career cradle of most other newspaper editors who formed their own co-operatives after fallouts. Technology-savvy recent arrival @Verdade (The Truth) is the only one using Facebook and Twitter. Most news outlets are based in Maputo, with the exception of Diario de Moçambique in Beira. The provinces sport a range of local weekly papers.
Judicial protection of freedom of expression is dubious in the country's paradoxical media landscape. “There is ambiguity in the law when it comes to media freedom,” says Banze. “On the one hand it protects the media; on the other it is anti-media.
“The freedom is conditional,” Banze continues. “You can write something today, but tomorrow you will be in court.”
Three years ago, Zambeze newspaper was charged with threatening state security after it published a report which questioned the prime minister's nationality. Misa submitted an Access to Information bill together with the first-ever broadcast regulation bill to parliament in 2005. The head of the parliamentary communications committee promised to push its debate in the first session of 2011.
Access to information is very complicated. “District administrators don't give information if they don't feel they have to. They only give information that interests them,” says Banze. Or they send you in circles. Non-government media are often ignored. Or you get lost in the bureaucracy. Harassment of provincial reporters is common.
Money is scarce in Mozambique. Business models are in a shambles because the old guard of editors eye consultancies with NGOs rather than develop their charge. Large advertisers are often linked to Frelimo and dictate content. Paid at best 10,000 meticals ($310) a month, journalists are vulnerable. “With their salaries, journalists are not able to live in dignity,” says Banze. Development agencies pay journalists to report on their activities. Businessmen buy their loyalty. National media lambasted the US last year for declaring Mozambique's richest man a drug kingpin “without proof”.
Investigative journalism is nil. There is only talk of favours and flatscreen TVs courtesy of Suleiman Bachir's electronics stores, though people direct you to his Maputo Shopping centre for the best drugs in town.
Government knows money shuts journalists up. Reporters accompany President Guebuza on all-expenses-paid state visits to China, the US and wherever. Senior journalists are quickly snatched up as researchers and information officers by international NGOs and the UN in Maputo. The unskilled, incompetent or inexperienced stay behind in the newsroom.
Several studies have pointed to the severe lack of skills and training of Mozambican journalists. A journalist friend recently showed a fresh journalism graduate the first Portuguese-language style guide he had ever seen – after a four-year bachelors degree at university.
Rumour is often the basis for reports. Journalists generate little news and rely heavily on government announcements or company media releases. News reports are published three days late. Languid copy avoids controversy and oscillates between courting the regime or pointing out potholes. And bad ethics follow bad reporting. Newspapers lift from each other without attributing or fact-checking.
With drugs and human trafficking, poaching, ivory smuggling, illegal logging and fishing Mozambique is the investigative journalist's dream. Yet Misa's Media Barometer found in 2009 that a “culture of fear” keeps journalists toeing the line. Part of it is due to socialist-era deference to authority. But journalist Carlos Cardoso was gunned down in 2000 when he exposed too much. Recent mafia-style executions of government cadres who had unearthed corruption flash warning lights: Do not go there.
So what does all this mean? A rapacious elite plundering public coffers unexposed and with impunity. Twelve million Mozambicans trapped in absolute poverty and abandoned by the media which should be fighting their cause. And a depressing read over your morning coffee. FAM
Johannes Myburgh is a freelance journalist from Mozambique, where he has been negotiating the intricacies of Afro-Latin media culture since April 2010. He covers issues from development to culture to business in Mozambique and the surrounding region for South African and international media. He speaks Afrikaans, English, French and Portuguese. He is still deciding whether to tackle Spanish, Arabic or Chinese next. Maybe all of them.
Photo: A demonstrator throws a tyre on a burning barricade during riots in Mozambique's capital Maputo September 1, 2010. Police fired rubber bullets and teargas as they clashed with demonstrators who burned tyres and blocked roads in protests on Wednesday against rising prices in the capital of impoverished Mozambique, witnesses said. REUTERS/Grant Lee Neuenburg.
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