CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and new restrictions being imposed on civil society in Mozambique with Paula Monjane, Executive Director of the Civil Society Learning and Capacity Building Centre (CESC).
CESC is a non-partisan, non-profit civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2009 with the mission of strengthening the capacity of citizens and communities to participate actively in socio-economic and political development processes, investing in knowledge sharing, learning tools, monitoring and advocacy for public policies that respond to people’s needs.
What are the current conditions for civil society in Mozambique?
The legal, political, institutional and practical conditions under which civil society operates in Mozambique have deteriorated over time. Over the past 10 to 15 years, despite having a constitution and laws that safeguard and recognise fundamental universal rights, we have witnessed increasing curtailment of freedoms of expression and information, press freedom and freedoms of assembly and public participation. This curtailment has been practised in violation of both the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique and the global and African human rights instruments Mozambique has signed. Currently, legislation is being proposed to silence dissenting voices and people fighting for better governance of public affairs and the protection of human rights.
Freedom of the press and expression has been marked by intimidation, kidnappings and disappearances of journalists, illegal detentions and physical violence, including killings perpetrated with impunity, mainly by police officers and other security forces. In 2021 alone, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) recorded 23 cases of violations.
In addition to these actions, there have been legislative onslaughts to limit press freedoms. In 2018, Decree 40/2018 introduced inexplicably high taxes for the licensing and registration of media companies and the accreditation of national and foreign press correspondents. In 2020 the decree was repealed due to pressure by MISA and the fact that the Constitutional Council declared it unconstitutional. But in December 2021, the government introduced a bill on media and broadcasting that would further restrict the exercise of press freedoms.
Attempts to deny permission for peaceful protests and control and suppress them have also increased. In 2022, several peaceful protests organised by feminist activists that had been notified to the relevant institutions were interfered with. In many cases activists were rounded up at police stations for no clear reason. People defending human rights have suffered reprisals, ranging from verbal and bodily threats to murder.
Elections, which have never been free or fair, have been the scene of systematic fraud, with violence committed before, during and after voting, and impunity for the state agents involved in it.
Spaces for people’s participation, which became popular in the 2000s, have been losing steam in the face of an increasingly closed political regime. People’s participation in state planning has become dependent on the will of the state official who oversees the area and the locality in question. In addition, we are witnessing a rise in controls imposed on CSOs that scrutinise the government in the areas of democracy, governance and human rights and threats they will be ‘blacklisted’.
Other restrictive measures have included changes introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014, defining defamation of senior state officials as a crime against state security and the approval of the 2022 Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act, which overregulates CSOs.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, yet another proposal that restricts a fundamental right, that of freedom of association, was approved by the Council of Ministers in September 2022 and sent to the Assembly of the Republic, Mozambique’s parliament, for approval in October.
How will this new law affect CSOs in Mozambique?
The draft law establishes a legal regime for the creation, organisation and functioning of CSOs and contains several norms that violate freedom of association, despite this right being safeguarded by the constitution and international human rights treaties. It gives the government absolute and discretionary powers to ‘create’, control the functioning of, suspend and extinguish CSOs.
If the bill is approved, it will legitimise already existing practices restricting civic space, allowing the persecution of dissenting voices and organisations critical of the government, up to banning them from continuing to operate. It will be the death of the civic movement, as only organisations aligned to the ruling party will survive. Party leagues affiliated with opposition political parties and opposition political parties themselves may be at risk of extinction.
Among other things, if passed, the new law would require that statutory changes that involve changes in objectives, activities or even the name of a CSO be approved by the regulatory body, without imposing any deadline for it to issue a decision. It would impose a single template for the bylaws of all CSOs, including details on authorities, mandates, forms of operation, reporting and members’ rights, easily allowing for the criminalisation of their leaders. It would reverse the burden of proof: CSOs will have to prove they are fulfilling their objectives and functioning properly through an annual report submitted every first quarter, and will risk suspension or termination if they fail to submit two reports. This law is intrusive in an area regulated by private law as established by the constitution and also ignores the variety of associations that exist in Mozambique. In addition, it gives the government the authority to conduct monitoring visits, audit accounts, visit implementation sites, demand periodic reports and request additional documentation whenever it sees fit.
Under the guise of preventing money laundering and terrorism financing, the draft law treats CSOs as criminals from the get-go. It is also unclear how these excessive controls could actually result in greater success in the fight against terrorism financing.
Why is the Mozambican government regulating CSOs as part of the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing?
The argument that this law aims to combat money laundering does not hold up, first of all because another law was passed in July 2022, law 11/2022, which deals specifically with money laundering and terrorism financing. CSOs must comply with it and it contains a specific article dedicated to them.
Out of the 40 recommendations issued by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for states to adopt in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing, only one – recommendation 8 – pertains to CSOs, and focuses on the possible need to adapt the legal framework based on risk assessment, in order to identify the sub-sector at risk, understand possible risks and develop adequate measures for mitigation and supervision based on and proportional to risk.
Additionally, the FATF has attached an extensive interpretative note to recommendation 8 and has produced a report on best practices, which mentions the need to respect international human rights law, indicates that measures should not disrupt or discourage legitimate charitable activities and notes that actions taken against non-profit organisations suspected of engaging in terrorism financing should minimise the negative impact on the innocent and legitimate beneficiaries of their services.
In October 2022, Mozambique was put on the FATF grey list, but the only action it needed to take in relation to CSOs was to conduct a terrorism financing risk assessment in line with FATF standards and use this as the basis for developing a disclosure plan. These recommendations are also in line with the assessment conducted in 2021 by the East and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group, the FATF’s regional partner organisation for East and Southern Africa. But instead, the Mozambican government has presented parliament with a bill to restrict the work of CSOs. The question then is, what are its real intentions?
The Mozambican government is not alone in attempting to pass an anti-civic space law. Several African states are using FATF recommendations and international pressure as an excuse to legitimise breaches of international and regional human rights instruments and their constitutions, relying on the indifference and sometimes even the protection of some bodies that should be defending these rights.
Over the past two decades, in a context of democratic regression and a growing prevalence of authoritarian governments, the African continent has seen many laws and measures passed or proposed that restrict universal rights and civic space. According to Freedom House’s 2022 report, 24 African countries have attempted to pass anti-civil society measures and laws. Twelve have succeeded in passing them, six have failed or given up and six have initiatives pending, including Mozambique.
How is civil society responding?
Soon after the surprise approval of the draft NGO law, national, provincial and district CSOs came together in what is now a movement fighting for the right to freedom of association. Aware that this process is not merely technical, but mainly political, we embraced multiple tactics, from lobbying and advocacy with decision makers in government, parliament and national and international human rights institutions to campaigns to deepen people’s understanding of the implications of this law’s approval.
We also conducted several technical analyses and promoted national and international debates. After many efforts and difficulties, we were able to hold a two-day meeting with relevant parliamentary working committees in November 2022. This resulted in the important decision that there was need for a broad consultation with citizens and social organisations at the national level, as universal and fundamental rights are at stake. Consultations were held in all 10 provinces between 6 and 16 February 2023, organised by the Assembly of the Republic alongside the Movement of CSOs In Defence of the Right and Freedom of Association, and included the participation of over 600 CSOs that were unanimous in rejecting the draft law.
Despite these important steps, we remain concerned about the link made between the urgency to approve the law and Mozambique’s removal from the FATF grey list. This means that even if it does not correspond to what is required of Mozambique, parliament will approve the law as soon as it resumes work next March. Given the defects of the draft law, we think the time is too short for a proper revision that ensures it doesn’t violate the fundamental and universal right to freedom of association.
If it is passed, we will push for it to be declared unconstitutional. We also expect more visible action from international and regional bodies, including CSOs. Given the dimension of the problem, in Mozambique as in the continent, and because it falls under their mandates, we expect urgent condemnation from the African Union, through the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and from the United Nations, through the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.
On behalf of CSOs fighting for human rights and democracy, we hope that the solidarity already shown will continue and that we will join efforts to push back against anti-civic space initiatives such as this.
Civic space in Mozambique is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with CESC through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @CescMoz on Twitter.