The bill on reorganising the country’s law courts that passed its first reading in the Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, on Friday seeks to outlaw all broadcasting of trials.
One article states “to safeguard the material truth and the legally protected interests and rights of those involved in cases, the production and public transmission of images and sound of trials is prohibited”.
This is a blanket ban on cameras and microphones in courtrooms.
Under the existing system, judges make their own minds up as to whether trials may be broadcast. Thus in the case of the six men charged with the murder of Mozambican journalist Carlos Cardoso, judge Augusto Paulino decided to allow live transmission of the entire trial, which lasted from November 2002 to January 2003. His decision was widely praised within Mozambique and abroad – although it scandalised more conservative sectors of the judiciary.
Other judges have been more restrictive – thus in 2004 judge Achirafo Abubakar only allowed the broadcast of the opening and closing sessions of the trial of the 17 people accused in the country’s largest bank fraud, involving the theft of the equivalent of 14 million US dollars from the Commercial Bank of Mozambique (BCM).
But the new bill takes away judges’ discretion in this matter, and ensures that never again will a Mozambican trial be broadcast. It is not only live broadcasts that are banned: taken literally, this is a prohibition on any filming or recording in courtrooms.
Even more ominous is another paragraph in the same article, which states that trials are public, except in cases where the court decides otherwise “to safeguard the dignity of persons and public order. or when there are other powerful reasons”.
This is extraordinarily vague language. No doubt the mention of “dignity” is intended to protect victims of rape or other sexual offences. But it is not specified, and any criminal could easily claim that holding a trial in public could prejudice his “dignity”.
The bill makes no attempt to define “other powerful reasons”. Thus any judge might declare that he has “powerful reasons” for holding a trial behind closed doors, and there is no mechanism whereby the public can appeal against that decision.
In informal discussions, some deputies of the ruling Frelimo Party admit that this article is badly worded. It is thus possible that, when the parliamentary committees rework the bill before the second reading (some time in early May), the article will be improved.
In a public meeting last week, Tomas Vieira Mario, the chairperson of the Mozambican chapter of the regional press freedom body MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa), argued that a ban on broadcasting trials would be unconstitutional, since it violates the constitutionally enshrined right of citizens to information.
But Justice Minister Esperanca Machavela defended the ban, on the grounds of the presumption of innocence of accused persons, and the right of citizens to their “honor and good name”, which are also included in the Constitution. She also argued that broadcasting trials could be damaging and intimidating to witnesses.
There seems to be a bi-partisan agreement on limiting press coverage of trials. For at last week’s meeting, the most prominent jurist among opposition parliamentarians, Maximo Dias, lined up in support of Machavela’s position. He argued that broadcasting trials might affect what witnesses said in court.
During Friday’s debate on the bill in the Assembly, not a single deputy, either from Frelimo, or from the opposition, raised the issue.