Maputo — A Mozambican journalist who described how a disabled child was discriminated against by a private school in the central city of Beira is being sued for libel.
Falume Chabane, the former editor of the Beira electronic newsheet, "O Autarca", opened a column in his paper in solidarity with the child, Aisling Binda, who was prevented from studying during the 2011 academic year. Every day, the column noted how many days Aisling had been denied her right to education.
Now the Beira International Primary School (BIPS) and its lawyer, Jorge Ucocho, are both sueing Chabane for libel, and the Sofala Provincial Court heard the case on Tuesday.
According to a report in Wednesday's issue of the Beira daily paper "Diario de Mocambique", after the hearing Chabane told reporters that Ucocho had accused him of a crime of "abuse of press freedom". He asked the court for damages of 600,000 meticais (about 21,430 US dollars), and for a prison sentence of two years for Chabane.
The damages would be divided in two, half for the school, and half for Ucocho who claims he was personally defamed in Chabane's articles.
"I explained to the court that all that we did was an expression of solidarity with the child, who was being prevented from studying", he said.
The school moved Aisling to a class on the first floor. Since there was no ramp, Aisling, who depends on a wheelchair, was unable to attend her new class. "O Autarca" suggested that Aisling's class should have remained on the ground floor - pointing out that all the other classes were on the ground floor.
"The paper opened a space for solidarity with the child", said Chabane, and "raised the awareness of society so that it too could show solidarity".
The reporters were dependent on Chabane's account, since no reporters were allowed into the courtroom. As has frequently happened in libel cases, the judge held the case behind closed doors. The request for a closed hearing was made by Ucocho.
This decision is based on the Penal Procedural Code, which does indeed grant judges discretion to lose libel trials to the public. But the Penal Procedural Code is not a Mozambican document at all, but an inheritance from the era of Portuguese colonial rule. Much of the code has been tacitly revoked by subsequent legislation, and Mozambican jurists have spent several years drafting a new Code, which may be approved by parliament later this year.
More importantly, the libel provision of the Code is clearly at odds with the 2007 law on court organisation, Article 13 of which states "Trials are open except when the law or the court determines that they be held without publicity, to safeguard the dignity of persons and public order, or when other powerful reasons occur".
The reference to "dignity of persons" refers to sexual offences, where the identity of victims may need to be protected. It is hard to see what threat to public order or "other powerful reasons" are involved in a libel case pitting a journalist against a private school.
To make matters worse for Chabane, his defence lawyer did not show up, and gave no explanation for his absence. Chabane found himself relying on an official defence counsel appointed by the court.
The story began in early 2011, when the group of Americans who run the Beira school, effectively expelled 10 year old Aisling, on the grounds that the school no longer had the appropriate conditions to cope with her disability.
The Sofala Provincial Directorate of Education intervened and issued an opinion in favour of Aisling, saying that the school should readmit her, but the Americans instead appealed to the Administrative Tribunal, which suspended the Education Directorate's ruling.
Mozambican policy is that, wherever possible, disabled children should study alongside other children of the same age, and that schools should be built taking into account the needs of the disabled. Thus a government decree of December 2008 states that any new schools must include ramps to allow wheelchair-bound children to reach their classes.
Two years later, building work took place at the Beira International Primary School, and no ramp or lift was included that would allow disabled children to reach the first floor. At the time Ucocho argued that the school could not afford the 10,000 US dollars which the installation of a ramp would cost. This attitude led to people of good will in Beira collecting money for a ramp.
The attitude of the school was condemned by children's rights groups, by the Mozambican Human Rights League (LDH), and by other civil society organisations.