Mozambique: US Amb. Reply to Criticism, 02/04/'96

Mozambique: US Amb. Reply to Criticism, 02/04/'96

Mozambique: US Ambassador Reply to Criticism Date Distributed (ymd): 960204

Note: In December APIC distributed excerpts from the Mozambique Peace Process Bulletin, edited by Joseph Hanlon and published by AWEPA, the European Parliamentarians for Southern Africa. The posting also included a short news story from the Mozambique Information Agency (AIM) recounting the refusal of the U.S. Embassy to meet with Hanlon, one of the most prominent Western experts on Mozambique, who has often been critical of U.S. policies. Subsequently the Media Institute of Southern Africa also ran a story on the incident, citing U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett as defending his policy of barring embassy staff from talking with Hanlon on the grounds that Hanlon was "totally biased." The highly respected independent Mozambican newsletter Mediafax then ran an editorial on the subject (excerpted below, together with Ambassador Jett's reply in full).

U.S. Embassy Ruling on Correspondent Criticized

December 19, 1995

The U.S. Embassy's decision to ban journalist Joseph Hanlon from contacting embassy and USAID personnel is a flagrant violation of freedom of the press and free expression and the right of the people to be informed.

The embassy is entitled to dislike how journalists report what they hear, but it has no right to deny journalists information that relates to Mozambique and to the interests of U.S. taxpayers.

Whether Hanlon is biased does not concern the embassy. And even if he reports what he hears in a way that prevents readers from separating his views from the facts, the embassy has no right to ban him. It does have the right to respond to a media outlet that publishes his stories and to put the record straight through other journalists. And if Hanlon misrepresents the facts as a matter of course, he will lose his reputation as other media outlets cntinue to provide information.

Mr. Dennis Jett is entitled not to speak to any journalist. But Ambassador [preceding word in italics] Dennis Jett does not have that right, let alone the right to ban anyone from the embassy or USAID from speaking to a journalist.

We know Joseph Hanlon and the surprising amount of work that he has done in Mozambique since he came to Maputo as a BBC correspondent in the late 1970s. We became acquainted with him as a journalist who was not afraid to show his readers his political preferences--as in the struggle with apartheid--and a critic who acted in line with his political affiliations.

For instance, we recall that although Hanlon generally favored the Mozambique Liberation Front's socialist plan in the 1970s, he was among the first to severely criticize the then Mozambique Government's agricultural policy.

Our Information Ministry's animosity toward Hanlon in the early 1980s only worked in his favor.

Regardless of whether we agree with his reporting or views, Hanlon's reporting on Mozambique and southern Africa represents a set of information and analysis that is very useful to Mozambique and to the next generation of researchers.


Therefore, it is with renewed regret that we regret the U.S. Embassy's inexplicable decision.

January 9, 1996

Dear Editor of Mediafax:
Permit me to respond to your editorial of December 19. In that editorial you called the American Embassy's refusal to give Joe Hanlon interviews with Embassy and USAID personnel a "flagrant violation of freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the right of persons to be informed." Mr. Hanlon, AIM and Domingo have all made similar accusations. You also said that I, as ambassador, have no right to ban any embassy employee from speaking to a journalist.

Clearly you do not understand the values behind the concepts you are so vigorously defending. I do not think this arises from different definitions of the terms involved, even though the American constitution and the Mozambican constitution are not identical on these points. The American constitution protects freedom of the press and freedom of expression by declaring that "congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." It should therefore be obvious to anyone that an embassy cannot violate freedom of the press in the American sense of term, since only the parliament in a particular country can pass a law that would interfere with a journalist's ability to express or publish his opinions.

The Mozambican constitution protects freedom of the press and freedom of speech as well, but uses somewhat different words to accomplish this. Article 74 of the constitution states:

"1. All citizens have the right of expression and the freedom of press, as well as the right to information.

2. The exercise of freedom of expression, consists of the ability to divulge one's own thoughts through all legal means, and that the exercise of the right to information will not be limited by censorship.

3. Freedom of the press consists of journalists having freedom of expression and of creation, access to sources of information, protection of their independence and the confidentiality of their sources and the right to create newspapers and other publications."

Since the Embassy has done nothing to prevent Mr. Hanlon from expressing his thoughts or publishing them, clearly the only question that arises is whether the Embassy has violated Mr. Hanlon's right to information or his right to access to sources of information.

Mozambique's press law, law number 18/91, contains Article 29 entitled "Access to Sources of Information." It states "Journalists, in the carrying out of their functions, will be allowed access to OFFICIAL sources (emphasis added) of information." Would the distinguished editor of Mediafax have his readers believe that Article 29, which only mentions "official" sources of information, is referring to the information of all the governments in the world and not just that of the Mozambican government? In any case, I and other members of this Embassy have frequently made ourselves available to the press in those cases where we believed it was productive to do so. At the same time, Mr. Hanlon's request for interviews was not the first we have declined because we thought it would not be useful.

Since access to official sources of information obviously does not apply, that only leaves the question whether Mr. Hanlon's right to information could have been violated. Article 3 of law 18/91 entitled "Right to Information" states: "With regard to the press, the right to information means the ability of each citizen to inform himself and be informed of relevant facts and opinions at the national and international level, as well as the right of each citizen to divulge information, opinions and ideas through the press." The citizens of Mozambique therefore have the right to inform themselves and be informed by journalists. Would the distinguished editor of Mediafax have his readers believe that this should be interpreted that any time anyone refuses to answer any question of any journalist, that the rights of all 16 million Mozambicans have just been violated?

Has the distinguished editor of Mediafax never heard in his professional career the response "no Comment"? Has he never had a phone call that was not returned or never had a question he posed that was not fully answered? If this has happened in the past, why have you not informed the people of Mozambique in each and every instance in which their rights have been violated?

I think the above arguments demonstrate the total absurdity of the assertion that the Embassy's decision regarding Mr. Hanlon violated freedom of the press, freedom of expression or the right of the people to be informed. You also made the point, however, that as ambassador, I did not have the right to ban anyone in the embassy from speaking to a journalist.

When it comes to expressing official government opinions during official working hours -- which is what Mr. Hanlon requested -- I not only have the right, but the obligation to ensure that official positions are expressed coherently and consistently. I also have the obligation to the taxpayers of the United States to see that their money is not wasted. We have spent many hours in the past answering Mr. Hanlon's questions, which failed to improve the quality of his reporting. Using more time of embassy personnel to respond to more of Mr. Hanlon's questions, given his ideological orientation and lack of objectivity, would therefore be a waste of such resources.

Would the distinguished editor of Mediafax have his readers believe that any journalist has the right to ask any question of any employee of any organization at any time and that no one in a position of authority, be it a manager, minister or ambassador, has the right to determine whether or how the question will be answered? If that is the case, Article 27 of law 18/91, which lists the rights of journalists, fails to include such a right and nowhere else in that law or in the constitution is such a right described.

I believe this is more than just a case of not understanding the letter of the law; it is also a fundamental lack of comprehension of the spirit of the law. This lack of understanding is not limited to this one occasion. When the Embassy's press attache wrote you in November regarding Mr. Hanlon, you took offense at her suggestion that an entity of the government like AIM perhaps doesn't understand freedom of the press. You termed this an insult to you and the other journalists who had worked at AIM and you pointed out "the journalists of AIM had to struggle hard for this freedom of the press, at times without success."

While you may have struggled, I would agree that you did not succeed. When you were director of AIM, Renamo was never mentioned by name, but was always referred to as the "armed bandits." Today AIM only describes Renamo as "the former rebel movement." It never calls Renamo "the largest opposition political party" or even "an opposition party." Frelimo, on the other hand, is always referred to as the "ruling party" or the "governing party" which is an accurate description of the present without reference to the past. Do AIM's readers need to be reminded every day that Renamo was once a rebel movement? If it is AIM's intention to teach history, in view of its successful struggle for liberation from colonialism, why isn't Frelimo ever referred to as a "former rebel movement?"

This problem with nomenclature is perhaps a small example of bias, but I am not the only one who doubts AIM's impartiality. The following quote regarding AIM may interest you: "The service, although it never fails to stimulate debate, is thought by many professionals to be a government propaganda service instead of an information service with the independence and objectivity guaranteed by law." The quote is from an article on page 5 of the August 28, 1995 issue of "Savana," an excellent newspaper that I recommend you read.

Some would argue that it is pointless to enter into a debate about freedom of the press with those who do not understand it or choose to ignore the values that are its foundation. Others say that arguing with an editor is a no-win situation since he (or she) will always have the last word.

While I do not disagree with these arguments, I think it is an important debate nonetheless because the peace which Mozambique now enjoys is by no means assured. One academic study which I read recently concluded that during the last fifty years in countries where there had been civil wars that were ended through negotiation, in one half of them war broke out again.

Whether Mozambique is part of the half that succeeds in not repeating the tragedy of the past will depend, to a large degree, on whether democracy succeeds here. Democracy can function successfully only if the institutions that are its foundations can function. In addition to a strong legislature and an independent judiciary, a free press is one of those essential institutions. Can the press be free if it is owned by the government? Is AIM your argument that it can? As the editor of the oldest independent publication in Mozambique, your opinions in this regard should be taken seriously.

When reading the accounts of those who worked for two years to negotiate the General Peace Agreement in Rome, one theme is consistent. The mutual lack of confidence that the two parties had in each other repeatedly complicated the process. The climate created by a biased and unobjective press clearly contributed to this mutual lack of trust. The role played by the press therefore probably served to prolong the war and certainly served to make implementation of the peace more difficult.

Distinguished editor of Mediafax, perhaps you should spend less time complaining about your friend being denied an interview and more time worrying about about the threat to continued peace in Mozambique posed by some of those who practice your profession.

Since Article 33 of Law 18/91 describes the "Right of Reply", I trust you will not violate my rights and will publish this letter in its entirety.

Along with the hope that the new year brings greater understanding of and appreciation for freedom of the press and freedom of expression, please accept assurances of my highest consideration.

Dennis C. Jett
U.S. Embassy, Maputo

Message-Id: <> From: "APIC" <> Date: Sun, 4 Feb 1996 10:09:46 -0500 Subject: Mozambique: US Amb. Reply to Criticism