Mozambican journalists have condemned a court decision to bar them from covering a high-profile libel case against one of the six men convicted of the murder of top investigative reporter Carlos Cardoso.
Journalists were prevented from entering the court on Tuesday when the case brought by Attorney General Joaquim Madeira against businessman Momade Assife Abdul Satar and Teodoro de Abreu, editor of the weekly paper, Demos, resumed. On the first day of the trial, on 29 March, both journalists and the public were kept out of the courtroom by order of the presiding judge, Luis Mahumane.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) said the ruling was unlawful, noting a constitutional amendment in November 2004, which clearly states that criminal trials are public. In Mozambique libel is a criminal offence, rather than a civil one.
"People have a right to information. I don't know why this is happening and, to make matters worse, the case involves a journalist," the national director of the media watchdog MISA-Mozambique, Alfredo Libombo, told IRIN.
Madeira's libel suit arises from an open letter published by Satar in Demos, in which he accused the attorney general of interfering in the Cardoso murder case. The eldest son of former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, Nyimpine Chissano, has been implicated in the 2000 assassination.
In his letter Satar alleged that Madeira had obstructed the Cardoso murder investigation in an attempt to protect Nyimpine Chissano. Madeira's office has denied this, pointing out that the case was not in the attorney general's hands as it was being handled by a Maputo city prosecutor.
Satar alleges that Nyimpine Chissano was the person who paid for the Cardoso murder. He admits that he paid US $46,000 to Anibal dos Santos Junior, the man who orchestrated Cardoso's death, but claims that the money was a loan to Chissano. Chissano has denied the allegation.
Fernando Lima, chairman of Media Coop, an independent publishing company, alleged that Judge Mahumane's decision to exclude the press from the court proceedings was an attempt "to protect political personalities", namely Nyimpine Chissano.
MISA said it would continue monitoring the case. "The legal advisors of MISA are ... gathering information about the case but, at present, they say they are not in a position to comment," Libombo said.
Three years ago MISA praised an unprecedented ruling by Judge Augusto Raul Paulino, permitting reporters into the courtroom to cover the Cardoso murder trial. It was the first time in the country's history that the media were allowed to bring cameras and recording equipment into court. Six men, including Anibal dos Santos Junior, were convicted in January 2003.
Carlos Cardoso was gunned down while investigating the 1996 embezzlement of US $14 million from the Commercial Bank of Mozambique. He urged the attorney general's office to try all those involved in the theft and implied that a prominent family, the Abdul Satars, had been connected to the scandal.