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Mozambique Wants to Criminalize ‘Insulting’ Texts, Emails and Internet Posts

Cidadão-repórter, Jornal @Verdade . Foto de Sourcefabric no Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Citizen reporter and the use of SMS, email and social networks in the newsroom of @Verdade newspaper. Photo by Sourcefabric on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This article, published by @Verdade Newspaper on April 2, 2014, was originally written by Alfredo Manjate (@AlMero05) in Portuguese and translated into English by Francisco Chuquela (@chuquela).

The Mozambican government is pushing a bill that would criminalize text messages, emails and other types of online posts that are considered “insulting” or that “jeopardize the security of the state”. 

Approved by the Council of Ministers [pt] (the executive government of Mozambique made up of the president of the republic, the prime minister and all other ministers) on April 1, 2014, the bill will next be submitted to parliament. Minister of Science and Technology Louis Pelembe explained that the tough penalties proposed in the bill would ensure consumer protection and increase confidence in electronic transactions as a means of communication and provision of services.

Free wifi area at Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo (June 2013). Photo by Sara Moreira

Free WiFi area at Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo in June 2013. Photo by Sara Moreira

Besides the provision on insulting content, the law would cover fraudulent access to the Internet, databases and financial transactions.

Concerning the specific case of text messages, Pelembe pointed out that “in the very recent past” they have “created a lot of turmoil in our country”.

He was referring to what became known as the “Bread Riots” – protests against the rising costs of bread, water and electricity that were organized via SMS in Maputo in September 2010. Following the protests, the government issued a ministerial ordinance that forced prepaid mobile phone users [pt] to register their SIM cards and identifying information with the two mobile telephone companies operating in the country at the time, amid other restrictions imposed on text message services.

The law would fill the need to create a legal framework to regulate and discipline these kind of activities, according to Pelembe. 

If approved by the parliament, it would be the first of its kind in Mozambique.

Evidence of a surveillance state

In early 2014, the country's Criminal Investigation Police contacted President of the local Human Rights League Alice Mabota to clarify if she was the author of a call to protest that was circulating via text message. It read:

Família moçambicana, acordem!!! Guebuza não nos quer ver vivos. Melhor acabarmos com ele do que ele connosco. Apelamos à manifestação imediata para a retirada dele do poder antes que seja tarde. Colabora com a ideia passando a mensagem para os outros. A sms é da Dr. Alice Mabota.

Mozambican family, wake up!!! [President] Guebuza doesn't want to see us alive. We better finish with him before he does with us. We call for an immediate protest for him to leave power before it is too late. Collaborate on this effort by passing this message to others. This SMS is from Dr. Alice Mabota.

When Alice Mabota left the police station, she told reporters:

só foram perguntar se a mensagem é da minha autoria e eu disse que não era. Eu forneci-lhes os meus três números de telefone para eles investigarem e ver se a mensagem foi enviada a partir de um deles.

They only asked if I was the author of the message and I said I wasn't. I provided them with my three telephone numbers for them to investigate and see if the message was sent from any of them.

An extensive report on human rights in Mozambique recently published by the U.S. State Department points out that the Mozambican government has been phone tapping members of political parties and human rights activists without warrants.

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