Johannesburg, August 2, 2012--An appeals court in the Mozambican city of Beira should reverse the criminal libel conviction of a journalist who wrote about a disagreement between a private school and the family of a disabled student, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Falume Chabane was sentenced to a 16-month suspended prison term on July 20 and ordered to pay damages of 150,000 meticais, according to news reports.
Chabane, former editor of the online news journal O Autarca (The Mayor), published a series of columns in the spring of 2011 that criticized the Beira International Primary School, according to news reports. The parents of Aisling Binda, a fourth-grader who is in a wheelchair, had complained that the school had not built a handicapped access ramp in compliance with a 2008 Mozambican children's rights law, according to news reports. The school later expelled the student, citing academic performance and other reasons, news reports said. The parents have said the expulsion was in retaliation for their complaint about the school's lack of handicapped access, news reports said.
The lawyer for the primary school, António Jorge Ucocho, filed a complaint accusing Chabane, who is also a reporter for TVM, of defaming both the school and himself and for "abusing freedom of the press," according to news reports. The journalist's stories had included daily updates on the number of days that Binda had missed school.
In a trial that took place behind closed doors, Chabane was sentenced to pay damages to both the school and to Ucocho, according to news reports. The lawyer had asked the judge for two years' imprisonment for Chabane and damages of 600,000 meticais (US$21,200) in total, according to news reports. Chabane has appealed the sentence, the reports said.
"Journalists should not be subject to criminal prosecution for their reporting," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita from New York. "We call on the appeals court to overturn this verdict and for Mozambican authorities to repeal the archaic criminal statutes that allow this sort of prosecution."
The Mozambican government and authorities in Sofala province, along with local child advocacy groups, have criticized the school and ordered Binda to be reinstituted, news reports said.
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