Mozambique: Appeals Court Upholds Acquittal of Economist and Journalist Accused of Libelling Guebuza

Maputo — Mozambique’s Higher Appeals Court (TSR) has struck a blow for freedom of the press, by throwing out the appeal by the Public Prosecutor’s Office against the acquittal, in September 2015, of prominent economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco, and journalist Fernando Mbanze, editor of the independent newssheet “Mediafax”, who had been accused of libelling former President Armando Guebuza.

The case arose from a post which Castel-Branco put on his Facebook page in November 2013, severely criticizing Guebuza’s governance and calling on him to resign. “Mediafax” republished Castel-Branco’s text.

The Public Prosecutor’s office regarded the article as libelous and, since libeling the head of state and other senior political figures is considered a security offence, Castel-Branco was charged under the law on crimes against state security. Mbanze was accused of the nebulous offence of “abuse of press freedom” under the 1991 press law.

The Maputo city court analysed in detail Castel-Branco’s Facebook post – and could find nothing libelous in it. Giving his verdict on 16 September 2015, Judge Joao Guilherme said that Castel-Branco had simply been giving his opinion about the way Guebuza ran the country. Other people might find his criticisms uncomfortable, but that did not make them a crime.

The language used by Castel-Branco might be regarded as “impertinent and vulgar, but the law does not deal with mere impertinence and vulgarity”, the judge declared.

Guilherme’s verdict was widely welcomed, in Mozambique and abroad, as a victory for freedom of the press. But the Public Prosecutor’s Office risked ridicule by appealing against the verdict.

The wheels of justice turn slowly in Mozambique, and it was only this week that the TSR gave it ruling – and strongly supported Judge Guilherme’s verdict.

The four judges on the TSR wrote: “in the heat of political discussion about the performance of the President of the Republic, who handles the policies of the country, with the money of the taxpayers, exacerbated spirits should be tolerated. Freedom of expression should prevail over the pretension of the defence of honour, for the good of society and of the democratic rule of law”.

Just like Guilherme, the TSR judges could find nothing libellous in Castel-Branco’s text. In their view, he had merely been exercising his constitutional right to freedom of the press.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office found it offensive that, at one point in his Facebook post, Castel-Branco had written “the President and all the warmongers, criminals and would-be fascists will be tossed into the rubbish bin of history”.

But the TSR thought that there was nothing extraordinary about such polemical passages. “The President of the Republic, because of his topmost position in the leadership of the State is exposed to criticism. Calling on a President to resign because the writer does not believe he is handling correctly the destinies of the country is normal throughout the world”, the Court said.

The judges ruled that, since Castel-Branco’s text was not libellous, then Mbanze had committed no crime by reprinting it.

So the TSR threw out the prosecution’s appeal and confirmed the verdict of Judge Guilherme “in its exact terms”.

The saga does not necessarily end here. The Public Prosecutor could appeal against the TSR to the Supreme Court – but only on issues of law, not on matters of fact. If it does so, it will expose itself to further ridicule, since it will be claiming that both the Maputo City Court and the Higher Appeals Court do not understand the law.

 

 

Source: Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique