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The trial in a Maputo city district court of a Mozambican journalist, Mathias Guente, accused of libelling Joana Matsombe, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Mozambique, is near collapse, following the decision on Wednesday by the Public Prosecutor’s Office to withdraw the charges.
Guente is the executive editor of the weekly paper “Canal de Mocambique”, which takes a strongly anti-government editorial line. The case arises from a cartoon which the paper published showing Matsombe, and the then governor of the central bank, Ernesto Gove, relaxing in bathing suits. The cartoon was supposed to be satirising the alleged incompetence of the banking supervision department of the Bank of Mozambique ahead of the collapse, in late 2016, of a tiny commercial bank, “O Nosso Banco” (“Our Bank”).
While Guente pointed out that satirical cartoons are a form of social criticism recognised in much of the world, Matsombe claimed that the caricature had libelled and dishonoured her, and had even shaken her marriage (she is the wife of a prominent businessman in the tourism industry, Quessanias Matsombe). She demanded that Guente be sent to prison for a year, and pay her compensation of two million meticais (about 34,000 US dollars, at current exchange rates).
Matsombe added that she was not responsible for failures in banking supervision – if that was the point of the cartoon, then the director who should have been caricatured was Waldemar de Sousa.
Guente and his supporters argued it was absurd to imagine that the cartoon hinted at any kind of sexual relation between Matsombe and Gove.
On Wednesday, in a highly unusual move, the Prosecutor, Carlos Banze, dropped the charges, and urged the court to acquit Guente. According to the report on the trial in the independent newssheet “Mediafax”, he said that no intent to defame had been proved. Banze added “the charge thus collapses, and I am not ashamed to say this”.
Despite the many months spent preparing this case, the Public Prosecutor’s Office could find nothing libellous in either the cartoon or its accompanying news item. Guente, the prosecutor argued, had acted within the constitutionally accepted bounds of the freedoms of expression and of the press.
“Anyone who holds a public office is subject to criticism and to public scrutiny”, said Banze. “It would be strange for cases like this to be interpreted as crimes, for if we did so we would be retreating from all historical developments”.
“It is natural for people to be more inclined to accept praise, and to be averse to criticism”, he added, “but it is not reasonable to use the criminal law to limit fundamental freedoms”.
The fact that the criticism might be extremely sharp did not turn it into a crime, he said.
The sole reason that the trial is continuing is that Matsombe has not given up on her private prosecution. Her lawyer said the criticism could be accepted if it had been directed against the entire Board of the central bank, but the fact that Matsombe had been singled out indicated intent to libel. She had been attacked, he claimed, solely because she was a woman.
Guente’s lawyer, former Supreme Court judge Joao Carlos Trindade, pointed out that the whole case could have been thrown out right at the start, since Guente was neither the author of the cartoon nor the director of the paper. Neither the director nor the cartoonist were even called upon as witnesses.
Even if the case were procedurally sound, Trindade added, was there anything legally relevant in the arguments presented by the prosecution? He could find no such relevance and regarded the claim that a cartoon undermined Matsombe’s marriage as “a fantasy”.
The fact that Matsombe is a woman did not make her immune to criticism, he said. The behaviour of the central bank in the run-up to the collapse and liquidation of “O Nosso Banco” had been widely regarded as irresponsible.
“That’s what public scrutiny is for”, said Trindade. “That’s the role of journalists”. The paper had denounced the failure of the central bank to take prompt action when it became clear that “O Nosso Banco” was insolvent – and it did not matter whether Matsombe was head of banking supervision at the time. She was a member of the board, and when the decision was taken to liquidate “O Nosso Banco”, it was Matsombe who was the public spokesperson of the central bank.
In another breach with precedent, the lay judges on the court also called for Guente’s acquittal, since they could see no crime in what the paper had published. Usually the lay judges are mute, and only the presiding judge, a legal professional speaks.
The presiding judge will deliver his verdict and sentence (if any) on 29 August.
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