A Maputo court on Wednesday acquitted prominent economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco and journalist, Fernando Mbanze, editor of the independent newssheet “Mediafax”, of libeling former President Armando Guebuza.
As presiding judge Joao Almeida Guilherme, of the Kampfumo urban district court, delivered the verdict from the panel of three judges, the courtroom burst into applause with cries of “Long live freedom of expression!”, “Long live justice!” and “There’s hope for the country yet!”
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. Two papers, “Mediafax” and the weekly “Canal de Mocambique”, republished Carlos-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.
Initially, the director of “Canal de Mocambique”, Fernando Veloso, was also accused, but since he is currently undergoing medical treatment in Portugal he was not in the dock. Nor was any attempt made to try him in absentia.
The court analysed in detail Castel-Branco’s Facebook post – and could find nothing libelous in it. Judge Gulherme 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.
Guilherme went through the article almost line by line, looking at all the points the prosecution had found libelous. To the court, Castel-Branco’s words fell within the boundaries of freedom of expression, and were protected by the Constitution.
The prosecution considered the very first line of the article – “Mr President, you are out of control” – as libelous and untrue. But Guilherme declared “however much discomfort this may cause, it’s no crime at all, just a criticism”.
Ruling such assertions criminal would put the court “on the list of the most undemocratic organizations”, he said.
Even Castel-Branco’s references to fascism were not libelous. Guilherme noted that the article did not call Guebuza a fascist, but asked a rhetorical question “Are you (Guebuza) preparing to make this a completely fascist state?”
He did not regard this as a matter for the courts at all. “To characterize the government as fascist might be an exaggeration, but it is not a crime”, he said. “It’s the opinion of the accused. Others may have different opinions”.
Castel-Branco wrote that Guebuza had surrounded himself “with bootlickers who lie to you every day, who invent false reports, and give advice based on false premises”. But the court regarded the term “bootlicking” as just a synonym for flattery, and noted that it was common in today’s political parlance. Again, Guilherme thought that Castel-Branco was entitled to express his views, even if the language he used was exaggerated.
Some of the accusations against Guebuza which the prosecution regarded as libelous were factually true. Castel-Branco had referred to the appointment of a convicted criminal “to command one of the main police units in the centre of the country”.
This matter was in the public domain. Guilherme pointed out, Castel-Branco had made “a legitimate criticism, and it’s reasonable to expect the government to clarify this”.
Similarly with Castel-Branco’s references to Guebuza’s personal wealth – Guilherme said it was public knowledge that, in addition to his political life, Guebuza had business interests, and the former president had never hidden this fact. Furthermore, the mentions of Guebuza “appropriating” wealth were “too vague” to constitute libel.
The claim that Guebuza had divided Mozambicans “in racial and ethnic, regional and tribal, religious and political terms” was not unique to Castel-Branco. Guilherme noted that Guebuza had indeed publicly used terms such as “Mocambicanos de gema” (which roughly translates as “Mozambicans at heart” or “true Mozambicans”).
Among those who made criticisms similar to Castel-Branco’s was the country’s best known writer, the novelist and poet Mia Couto. Guilhermc cited the criticisms of Guebuza made by Couto, on 3 September in his speech made when accepting an honorary doctorate.
Couto had warned against the Mozambican tendency of being “selectively deaf. We listen to those who are close to us, those who obey us, those whom we like hearing. We listen to those from our own party, above all those who do not criticize us. Everything else does not exist, everything else is a lie, everything else is slander. Everything else is said by ‘’the others’’”
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.
As for the republication by “Mediafax”, if Castel-Branco had committed no crime, than neither had Mbanze by reprinting his post, Guilherme ruled.
After declaring the two men acquitted, Guilherme added that, however tough some people might find the language used in the article, “it is perfectly acceptable in a democracy”.
“People have the right to give their opinions on how the President is governing the country”, he added.
The prosecution has announced it will not appeal against the acquittals.