Maputo, Mozambique --- The cold-blooded killing of Metical editor Carlos Cardoso on November 22 came as no surprise to his colleagues and friends, although this country is not known for vicious attacks on press freedom.
While Cardoso was sympathetic to the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), the ruling political party that began as a guerilla movement under Portuguese rule, he did not hesitate to criticize party leaders in print. He was equally unsparing of the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), a former rebel group that is now the main opposition party.
Most recently, Cardoso's fax newsletter was probably the only publication in the country to report seriously on the deaths of 41 demonstrators during anti-government protests early this month, and of 83 prisoners in the northern town of Montepuez last week. He openly blamed the killings on both RENAMO and on "gangster factions" within FRELIMO. He also attacked the state media's timid coverage of these incidents.
"He was killed because he was isolated," said one local reporter.
Cardoso founded the cooperative press organization Mediacoop with a group of fellow journalists in 1992, after quitting his job at a state-owned news agency. The state security police threatened to close down the entire venture if Cardoso was named editor of Mediacoop's newspaper project, but in the end he did take charge of mediaFAX.
The paper consisted of four pages that were faxed out every night. And although some in the ruling party supported press freedom and welcomed criticism, others responded with harassment and even bomb threats. In short, mediaFAX was an instant success. Just a few months after the launch, The New York Times suggested that Cardoso's fax service could be a model for independent journalism in Africa, where scarce resources limit the scope of conventional media.
Cardoso frequently argued that progress toward a free press was one of the few success stories in Mozambique. In 1991, prior to the launch of mediaFAX, the national press union voted to separate itself from FRELIMO, while the Ministry of Information suspended its practice of issuing editorial guidance to newsrooms. In 1998, Cardoso launched Metical.
In October 1992, Mozambique emerged from a brutal, 17-year civil war that had pitted RENAMO, backed by the apartheid regime in South Africa, against FRELIMO, originally a Marxist-Leninist party. Local media won praise for promoting dialogue and reconciliation between the warring parties. The large United Nations contingent that arrived to oversee the transitional period before general elections in 1994 also provided a strategic shield for the development of an independent press. By 1994 the country boasted two new weeklies, two fax newsletters, and a new radio and television station, apart from the state media.
But despite favorable assessments by international lenders, Mozambique's political and social situation has been worsening in the last few years. Privatization programs have forced thousands of workers into unemployment. Crime has skyrocketed in the main cities. And with police unable to guarantee public security, vigilantes have started burning alleged criminals to death on the spot. RENAMO, meanwhile, boycotted local elections in 1998 and later rejected its narrow defeat in the national elections of December 1999, accusing FRELIMO of creating an elected "ballot dictatorship."
Perhaps inevitably, local media have also been infected by partisanship. During the 1999 election campaign, both the British press-freedom organization ARTICLE 19 and the U.S. Carter Center reported pro-FRELIMO bias in the state media. Typically, Cardoso steered an independent course in an otherwise polarized debate. For example, Metical supported RENAMO's call for a recount, but criticized the opposition party's decision to boycott parliament.
In May of this year, Metical published a letter by Deputy Attorney General Afonso Antunes denouncing fraud at the government-owned Banco Comercial de Moçambique. Despite intense pressure from the Attorney-General's office, Cardoso refused to reveal how he obtained the letter.
The fallout from the election dispute continues to escalate, with RENAMO demanding power in provinces where its support is strongest and threatening to take up arms once again. Though Cardoso's murderer has yet to be apprehended, the editor was clearly a victim of the forces he had sought to unmake.
On Thursday, November 30, Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago visited Metical's office in Maputo. "Above all," he told Cardoso's mourning colleagues, "we must not let them convince us that this kind of thing is accidental, that there is some uncontrolled group which for no particular reason resolved to commit murder."
Fernando Lima worked with Carlos Cardoso for eighteen years.