Maputo — The Maputo City Court on Wednesday acquitted the executive editor of the weekly paper "Canal de Mocambique", Matias Guente, on libel charges brought against him by a former director of the Bank of Mozambique, Joana Matsombe.
The case arose from a cartoon which the paper published showing Matsombe, and the then governor of the central bank, Ernesto Gove, relaxing in bathing suits. The cartoon was supposed to be satirising the alleged incompetence of the banking supervision department of the Bank of Mozambique ahead of the collapse, in late 2016, of a tiny commercial bank, "O Nosso Banco" ("Our Bank").
While Guente pointed out that satirical cartoons are a form of social criticism recognised in much of the world, Matsombe claimed that the caricature had libelled and dishonoured her, and had even shaken her marriage (she is the wife of a prominent businessman in the tourism industry, Quessanias Matsombe). She demanded that Guente be sent to prison for a year, and pay her compensation of two million meticais (about 34,000 US dollars, at current exchange rates).
Guente and his supporters argued it was absurd to imagine that the cartoon hinted at any kind of sexual relation between Matsombe and Gove.
Initially, the Public Prosecutor's Office backed Matsombe, but in mid-July its changed its mind and dropped the charges. In a highly unusual move, the Prosecutor, Carlos Banze, urged the court to acquit Guente.
Despite the many months spent preparing this case, the Public Prosecutor's Office could find nothing libellous in either the cartoon or its accompanying news item. Guente, the prosecutor argued, had acted within the constitutionally accepted bounds of the freedoms of expression and of the press.
"Anyone who holds a public office is subject to criticism and to public scrutiny", said Banze. "It would be strange for cases like this to be interpreted as crimes, for if we did so we would be retreating from all historical developments".
"It is natural for people to be more inclined to accept praise, and to be averse to criticism", he added, "but it is not reasonable to use the criminal law to limit fundamental freedoms". The fact that the criticism might be extremely sharp did not turn it into a crime, he said.
The only reason the trial did not collapse in July is that Matsombe refused to drop her private prosecution. Her lawyer said the criticism could be accepted if it had been directed against the entire Board of the central bank, but the fact that Matsombe had been singled out indicated intent to libel. She had been attacked, he claimed, solely because she was a woman.
Guente's lawyer, former Supreme Court judge Joao Carlos Trindade, pointed out that the whole case should have been thrown out right at the start, since Guente was neither the author of the cartoon nor the director of the paper. Neither the director nor the cartoonist were even called upon as witnesses.
This is the argument which seems to have weighed most in the mind of the court. Giving her verdict on Wednesday, the judge said Matsombe had sued the wrong person. Those who could face charges of "abusing press freedom" were the director of the paper and the author of the cartoon, neither of whom were in the dock.
What had been shown, said the judge, was that "the accused is the editor of the paper, and not its director or the author of the cartoon".
Nonetheless, Matsombe announced that she intended to appeal against the acquittal.
Guente said that, although the outcome favoured him, he could not understand why the court had allowed the case to drag on for so long. As soon as the court realised that the wrong person was being tried, it could have declared the whole case null and void, he added.