A well-respected Mozambican academic is facing trial for a comment he made on Facebook critical of President Guebuza. This is flagrant violation of the professor’s freedom of opinion and of expression. Such repression may close down public debate and lead to self-censorship.
The Maputo Office of the Attorney General sent shockwaves through independent media networks last year when it opened a criminal case against Mozambican economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco in response to a Facebook post strongly criticizing President Armando Guebuza. The post had been widely circulated and reprinted by some of the independent press. This week Castel-Branco was summoned before the prosecutor as a suspect under the law on Crimes Against State Security. The Maputo AG is currently deliberating on whether to move forward with the case.
Castel-Branco is a well-respected academic, whose work on the country’s economic transition, political economy of growth and social system of accumulation, has played a particularly important role in informing political debate both in Mozambique and internationally http://www.iese.ac.mz/?__target__=investigator&investigatorid=1) He is a Professor of industrialization and development economics at the Eduardo Mondlane University, in Maputo; a founding member and first director of the Institute of Social and Economic Studies (www.iese.ac.mz), Mozambique’s premier independent, policy oriented, heterodox research institution; a member of the Mozambican Academy of Sciences and of the Mozambican Association of Economists; and a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.
In his Facebook post, Castel-Branco held President Guebuza accountable for the current state of war in parts of the country, for an approach to economic development that generates high growth but is unable to reduce poverty, for use of spiraling public debt to fuel private gain at the expense of public services, and for the narrowing of political space and increasing control of the media by the political and economic elites. The post called for the president to resign.
Castel-Branco’s post is reflective of a long Mozambican tradition of vigorous and informed political critique under difficult and hostile circumstances, beginning with the nationalist opposition to fascist colonial occupation. Intellectuals, whether social scientists, poets, writers of fiction or journalists, drew inspiration from close observation of the world in which they lived, and became active participants in the struggle, circumventing the censor’s pen.
The criminal charge against Castel-Branco endangers the democratic process in three important ways. First, it makes open political critique of an office-holder a crime against state security. In an electoral democracy office-holders come and go. Active and critical public review of a politician’s record in office is an essential part of the process of selection and a check on the abuse of power and errors of judgment of those who hold high office.
Second the charge appears to violate the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique. Article 48 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to information.
Third, it appears that state institutions and resources are being used to harass individuals who utilize their freedom of expression to engage in active and critical public debate. In the weeks following the appearance of his post on Facebook, state-owned newspapers, TV channels and radio stations unleashed a campaign of vitriolic personal attack on Castel-Branco.
Institutions too have been targeted. Recently Institute of Social and Economic Studies (IESE) was served an eviction order by APIE, the state housing agency, without any previous communication, and given only 15 days to move. While IESE expects to launch the 5th issue of “Desafios para Moçambique” - Challenges for Mozambique - (http://www.iese.ac.mz/?__target__=publications_books) on time, and to hold its IV International Conference at the end of August 2014 (http://www.iese.ac.mz/lib/noticias/2014/IESE_CFP_IVCONF_E.pdf), the eviction has been disruptive. The operation of its extensive documentation centre, internal computer system and administration had to be temporarily suspended.
The precedent set by the conflation of personal and state authority, by the uncertainty of the rule of law and by the use of state institutions to pursue personal vendettas are antithetical to the functioning of Mozambican democracy. The most important peril in the Castel-Branco case is that fear of similar treatment may close down public debate and lead to self-censorship.
In the short term, the opposite seems to be true. The case has sparked increased political debate in Mozambique. In this sense, Castel-Branco is as much a product as a driver of the tradition of vigorous discussion that was so instrumental in building a Mozambican democracy. As he exited the Attorney General’s Office after the hearing, Castel-Branco was asked by a journalist how he felt: ‘Citizenship is like a bicycle – no matter how far and for how long you have to pedal, the moment you stop, you fall’.
An international petition calling on the public prosecutor to drop the case has been posted on Change.org. It can be signed http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/office-of-the-attorney-general-in-maputo-defend-freedom-of-speech-and-academic-freedom-in-mozambique-2?utm_source=guides&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=petition_created#share">here
* Bridget O’Laughlin is retired Associate Professor, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and Research Associate at IESE.
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