For many years, being an independent journalist in Mozambique was like screaming into the wind. Now, there is a tug-of-war happening in the country. It’s not over land or positions of power, but over words. And in Maputo, you’re in the epicentre.
One of the prominent figures of the struggle is a journalist called Erik Charas. He’s a large man with a booming laugh, and an enthusiasm that doesn’t ebb, even after we speak for an hour. Once he starts talking he can’t stop – an energy and stamina, I suspect, he has brought to every aspect of his life. He’s the founder of @Verdade, one of the more controversial media outlets in Mozambique. And he’s somewhat famous around the capital. If his name comes up in conversation immediately people shout, “Ahh, Charas!!”
He speaks with the gusto of a man who’s just that morning decided to start a revolution. But the reality is, he’s been leading one for years. Pushing @Verdade to call people out, and hold powers accountable, and empowering other outlets to do the same.
He laughs that he has been summoned to the state prosecutor again and again for his trouble, but adds that the hard-copy incarnation of his newspaper was one of the battle’s victims. Now it exists only online.
“We lost a lot of money to keep information going. But it was essential, it was election time. People needed to be informed of what was going on in there. I like to feel we didn’t lose money. We invested in a society, we invested in a more educated city that we have now.”
Before that, the paper was always published out of the capital, to serve those within, and the city’s floating population – the poorer urban population who live outside the city but commute in for work. For these groups, Erik is somewhat a Maputo hero.
John Chekwa, on the other hand, is a hero of a more remote region. He used to be the station manager at a community radio station in Manica – central Mozambique. Like Erik, he was always toeing a space far over the acceptable line. Another journalist who cares deeply about his community. Another trouble-maker.
John is instantly likable. He meets me with a smile that highlights a young and carefree face. Remarkable, for someone who has been through what he has; minutes into our conversation he tells me that one day short of a year ago, eight armed masked men came looking for him. Retribution, he suspects, for work he was doing at his radio station.
The men did not find him. Instead, he says, the only people in the house were his son and his son’s friend, both 15. They were beaten and abducted, but managed to escape and raise the alarm. Yet despite the harm to his son, and the knowledge that the men actually came for him, a year on John’s mood is cheerful. He laughs when he realises what date it is, and tells me tomorrow he will be celebrating another year that he’s alive. It’s hard to believe that someone would want to hurt him at all.
Since I’d arrived, resilient and passionate journalists had surrounded me at every step. A day after I met John, I found myself sitting at a large table, being grilled by Mozambique’s next generation of journalists. They were interns training at Media Lab in the country’s capital to be the next wave of reporters, writers, and cameramen and women.
I had come to ask them about their training, their motivation, and their concerns about entering in to the trade. Instead, they had turned the tables, and were bombarding me with questions of their own.
They were interested in how Mozambique was perceived in other countries. They expressed concerns about how both it and Africa more widely were represented abroad.
“In international coverage we are always seeing our country as one with needs and necessities,” a young man noted. How was my story going to depict Mozambique differently?
“That’s why I’m talking to you,” I tried to explain. “You guys are a positive story, a new wave of educated journalists entering the workforce.”
That, apparently, wasn’t a good enough answer. “Yes, but we’re not representative of the media in Mozambique either,” a young man said. “We are, I believe, a blessed group.” He gestured to the table where we sat. “Look at the laptops, tablets…” The group nodded in agreement. They clearly considered themselves to be ‘the lucky ones’.
For over an hour, we spoke of community journalism and the importance of getting things done on a local level. We discussed external pressures, which could prevent them from doing their job how they see fit. And they asked me about combatting fake news… a concept which had leaked its way even to here.
Generally though, they were positive. A young man said he was doing journalism to make a difference; first to his community, then to his province, and then to the entire country. When I asked the group if they were becoming journalists to make a difference, each one nodded.
Less than a 10 minute drive away from where these young journalists train is the spot where journalist Carlos Cardoso was murdered in 2000.
A beloved reporter and the editor of the daily newsletter Metical – he was investigating bank fraud at the Commercial Bank of Mozambique. He was killed outside his office with an AK-47.
Throughout my interviews, the journalists I talk to are vocal about safety concerns. Although – it should be noted – that no one has been concerned enough to go off the record. There’s an odd mix of anxiety and confidence for journalists here.
As I speak with media monitoring bodies I keep hearing the phrase “things are just not that bad here”. It’s not untrue. Since 1992, only one journalist – Cardoso – was killed as a direct result of their work – the same number, in fact, as Ireland, who lost Veronica Guerin back in 1996.
Yet the phrase “not that bad” is problematic in itself. It means the situation gets overlooked by the international media when, the reality is, journalists are afraid to make the calls journalists in other countries wouldn’t think twice about making, or would in fact, revel in making.
Additionally, it’s bad enough that international bodies have to monitor press freedom closely – coming to the assistance of detained journalists, and condemning threats made against them. The day before I flew into Maputo, local media reported that a journalist in Nampula, northern Mozambique, was threatened at gunpoint as a result of his work.
Still, there is definite progress. Perhaps most notably, Erik says the government is starting to engage with the media in a way he never imagined before.
“They were arrogant. They would send you a press release and expect that to be totally printed with no questions… And now it’s them actually engaging. Calling you, stopping you. Giving you info. There have been huge terrific successes in that sense.”
Now, it’s possible to hold people accountable.
“And that is the biggest victory we have,” Erik adds.
A victory of words, information, and expression which is spreading, albeit slowly, from the epicentre to the most remote areas of Mozambique.
Louise McLoughlin was funded through the summer 2017 round to travel to Mozambique to report on the success and struggles of independent press in the country. Her project will focus on journalists’ attempts to expand media on a local level and to create quality content, despite government constraints. Her work will be published in The Irish Times in early 2018.