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Mozambican army soldiers patrol the streets of Mocimboa da Praia after security in the area was increased following a two-day attack by suspected Islamist fighters, March 2018.  © 2018 ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP/Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – Mozambique’s state security forces are intimidating, detaining, and prosecuting journalists covering the fighting against an armed Islamist group in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. For 13 days in January 2019, the military held incommunicado Amade Abubacar, a journalist who was interviewing villagers displaced by insurgents, then turned him over for civilian prosecution.

Since June 2018, the government has barred various media organizations and correspondents from visiting the province, while the army detained journalists who managed to go there or police arrested them on bogus charges.

“The Mozambican government’s actions to silence the media in Cabo Delgado obstruct public scrutiny of the military operations and alleged abuses,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately release Amade Abubacar and allow him and other journalists to operate safely and freely.” 

On January 5, police officers arrested Abubacar, who works for Rádio e Televisao Comunitária Nacedje (Nacedje Community Radio and Television) and as a freelance writer for other local media groups. MISA Mozambique, a local media rights group, said Abubacar was transferred that day to a military barracks in Mueda district, where soldiers allegedly beat and ill-treated him, and held him without access to a lawyer or family members for 13 days. 

On January 17, the public prosecutor's office charged Abubacar with "violation of state secrets” and "public instigation to crime.” State prosecutors alleged that Abubacar’s notebook contained detailed information about the armed group, including names of insurgents, and that he was covering the insurgency without informing his editor at the community radio station. He is currently being detained at the Macomia District Command of the Mozambique Police.

Under Mozambican law, military personnel are prohibited from holding detainees in military barracks. Suspects detained during military operations must be handed over to police, who will proceed with arrests and either release the suspects or charge them within 48 hours. 

The head of the Mozambican Bar association, Flavio Menete, called Abubacar’s arrest a “legal aberration,” and said that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ignored the journalist’s detention in a military installation to validate his detention. United Nations human rights experts said the arrest of Abubacar could have “a chilling effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression in Mozambique.”

Human Rights Watch has documented other cases of arbitrary detentions of journalists and other abuses by government security forces in villages attacked by the armed Islamist group known locally as both Al-Sunna wa Jama’a and Al-Shabab. The group has no publicly known link to the abusive Somali armed group Al-Shabab. 

An editor based in the northern province of Nampula, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told Human Rights Watch that army soldiers operating in Cabo Delgado target anyone perceived as trying to uncover abuses in the region and accuse them of being insurgents. “To be able to report the events in the province, one must be disguised as a local resident and avoid being detected,” he said. “Any sign that you might be a journalist will put you in serious danger.”

The editor said he was detained twice since September at military checkpoints for several hours. He said that on both occasions, soldiers searched his car and belongings, and threatened to kill him if his cover story was not real.

On June 30, 2018, army soldiers stopped a Zimbabwean journalist in Pemba city, together with his interpreter and driver, while he was interviewing residents on the streets. When the journalist told the soldiers that he planned to head north to interview victims of insurgent attacks, soldiers took them to the nearest police station where they were kept incommunicado until the following morning. They were released on July 2 without charges, after the Pemba state prosecutor intervened.

The same week, a team from BBC Africa was denied accreditation to work in Cabo Delgado province. A team member told Human Rights Watch that an official from Gabinfo, the government body that regulates journalists in the country, told them that the government didn’t want any focus on Cabo Delgado because “the story was embarrassing.”

On July 10, soldiers detained a three-member crew from an international news agency for about three hours outside Chitolo village, in Mocimboa da Praia district. One of the reporters said there was no army presence in the village when they arrived in the morning. However, when they finished interviewing residents and left the village around midday, a large contingent of soldiers had set up a roadblock and stopped them. Soldiers took them to a police station in Mocimboa da Praia, where they removed the memory cards and deleted photos from the journalists’ cameras. 

Two Cabo Delgado-based Mozambican journalists said that members of the intelligence services had warned them not to report events in some villages of Macomia and Mocimboa da Praia, unless “there is a visit by government officials.” One said, “I used to be one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene after the attacks. I even covered stories of abuses by security forces. But in November, a member of the police investigation unit told me that I should stop acting like a brave man if I loved my life and my family.”

On December 17, soldiers detained an academic, a journalist, and a driver in Mocimboa da Praia district, after they interviewed residents of Chitolo village. The academic said that 15 army soldiers took them to a makeshift barracks at Quelimane Primary School, where about 80 soldiers were camped even though the school was still functioning. At the school the soldiers intimidated and questioned them for several hours and searched their cellphones and cameras. “At night, they gave us four pieces of bread and water for dinner before forcing the three of us to sleep on the back of our pickup truck,” the academic said. “In the morning we used the school toilets to wash ourselves.” he said. The soldiers allowed them to leave that morning but refused to return the seized electronic equipment.

“Mozambique’s fight against insurgents is no excuse to unduly constrain media freedom,” Mavhinga said. “By obstructing the media in Cabo Delgado, the government is trying to prevent Mozambicans from learning what both sides to the conflict are doing.” 

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