Matias Guente of Mozambique wins the International Press Freedom Prize
The winner of this year’s International Press Freedom Prize is Matias Guente, editor of the independent Mozambican investigative weekly, Mozambique Channel (ChannelMoz – online version). He shares the prestigious prize awarded by the Committee to Protect Journalists with Belarusian correspondent Katsiaryna Barysevich, Anastasia Mejia from Guatemala and Aye Chang Niang from Myanmar.
“It was a privilege for me as a Mozambican journalist. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the announcement on the internet,” Guente said, adding that the award will inspire others who work in very dangerous and difficult. “It is also a warning to the enemies of a free press that the world is watching those who do their duty, who report,” Guente said. DW in an exclusive interview. “The press is the cornerstone of democracy. We believe that.”
Newspaper offices burned down
Guente’s ChannelMoz newspaper is credited with uncovering corruption cases involving senior government officials and prominent businessmen. But, unfortunately, his journalistic work made him a target and, in August 2020, the newspaper’s offices in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, were set on fire. “It was the most terrible moment of our lives as journalists, and also as citizens who believe in a free country, in democracy and in freedom,” Guente said. “We couldn’t believe it, so we ran to the office and saw it with our own eyes; it was real.”
Everything, including furniture, equipment to produce content and the newspaper’s archives, was reduced to ashes on that fateful day. “What came to our minds was that the enemy of democracy, the enemy of press freedom, had reached unimaginable limits. Even in our worst moments, we could not believe that it could come to that,” Guente recalls.
This arson did not deter him, however. The next day, Guente and his colleagues defiantly set up an “open-air newsroom” right in front of the ruins of their burnt-out media house. “We didn’t bow to these guys because if we did, we’d be telling people that they [the suspects] were right. But they weren’t. We believe in freedom and democracy and a free country,” Guente stressed. “Of course, we fear for our lives, but there are some things that we think go beyond perceptions. It is also our duty as humans and citizens of this country.”
Guente told CPJ in an interview after the incident that he believed the main motive for the attack was to “shut down the paper because they know how important we are to democracy.” It wasn’t the only attack Guente had to endure. In 2019, unidentified assailants beat Guente and attempted to kidnap him.
Risk of exposure of corruption
A month before this attack, local officials had summoned Guente. According to CPJ, citing a local press freedom group, the attack may have taken place because of articles published by Mozambique Channel who investigated the kidnapping of businessmen by a crime syndicate allegedly linked to the police. He also revealed the security contracts of multinationals operating in the gas-rich but unstable province of Cabo Delgado. There was also an alleged manipulation of a fuel marketing process.
After this investigation, the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy suspended a fuel marketing agreement, but authorities charged it with breach of state secrecy and conspiracy against the state. They later released him due to lack of evidence, but warned him that the prosecution may revisit these charges in the future.
“The media situation in Mozambique is deteriorating,” Guente said. “Besides these physical attacks, there are also attacks from formal institutions which can take the form of laws and intimidation of journalists. There is a formal institution that spews hate speech against journalists.” He gave an example of institutions making inflammatory speeches against the press and said nothing happened to them. “We’ve never seen this kind of environment before.”
Investigative journalists need training
Mozambique is in the throes of a “hidden debt-corruption scandal” involving former finance minister Manuel Chang. The corruption case alleges that ProIndicus, Ematum and Mam, three Mozambican state-owned companies, secretly borrowed 1.76 billion euros ($2.08 billion) between 2013 and 2014 from Credit Suisse, the Russian bank VTB, between others. The funds were supposed to be used to finance maritime surveillance, fishing and shipyard projects. However, the debts have been hidden from the public and the international community.
Guente said investigating such cases requires skilled journalists. “The human resources are there, but this kind of investigative journalism requires a lot of resources,” he said, stressing that they are not a great school of investigative journalists but do what they can. with the limited means at their disposal. “I think we need training for our reporters so they have more skills on how they can investigate things that we normally think are not big stories,” Guente said. He said their newspaper was trying to train staff in these skills, but there was a need for more resources to empower journalists as the work is essential.