Maputo — Judge Alexandre Samuel, of the Maputo City Court, on Wednesday rejected a request from defence lawyer Jaime Sunda to ban the media from covering the trial of his client, Setina Titosse, accused of masterminding the fraud through which 170 million meticais (about 5.6 million US dollars, at the exchange rate of the time) was drained from the government's Agricultural Development Fund (FDA) between 2012 and 2015.
The call to throw the press out of the courtroom comes rather late since Titosse and 23 others have been on trial since 12 September, and case has been headline news for the past week.
Sundae claimed that the press coverage violated the presumption of innocence which accused persons enjoy, and was damaging the good name and image of the defendants.
As Sundae must have known, both the Mozambican Penal Code and the Constitution state that trials are public, except under certain limited circumstances. Article 65 of the Constitution establishes the public nature of trials “except when the protection of personal, family, social or moral intimacy, or powerful reasons of security of the hearing or of public order advise the exclusion or restriction of publicity”.
The exception concerning “personal intimacy” mainly concerns cases of rape and other sexual offences, and no issues of security or public order can conceivably arise from a fraud case.
Judge Samuel rejected Sundae's request, citing the public's right to information, which can only be guaranteed by media coverage of trials.
He was supported by the prosecutor, Joao Nhane, who told reporters that the trial is a public act, from which the press cannot be excluded.
“I don't think the court will take its decision influenced by what the press says”, he added. “Let us leave the journalists to do their jobs. A balance must be found between the exercise of the profession of journalism and the rights of the accused. The trial is a matter of public interest, and the media take part in educating society, which is what we want”.
Nhane pointed out that there are already restrictions on how the press can report. There can be no live broadcasting of trials. Cameras and microphones are only allowed at the formal opening and closing sessions of trials. During the interrogation and cross-examination of the accused and of witnesses, no recording by the press is permitted, and journalists are only allowed to take notes.
Not all the defence lawyers agree which Sundae. One of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the daily paper “Noticias” that he disagreed with “opening fire against the press, which is complying with its role of informing within the law”.
“This is just a distraction”, he said. “We are wasting a lot of time talking about journalists, when the case speaks for itself, and this is what we should focus on”.