The Death of a Journalist — and a Free Press — in Mozambique - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Carlos Cardoso
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

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Journalist Carlos Cardoso’s assassination silenced more voices than just his own.

By Eromo Egbejule

On Nov. 22, 2000, the day Carlos Cardoso died, the 48-year-old journalist left the offices of the Metical — the paper that both defined his career and ended his life — to watch a soccer game at home. Instead, it was his assassination that became a spectacle, for fellow commuters in rush-hour traffic in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo.

The 49-year-old journalist, who was killed instantly when two men with AK-47s blocked the road and sprayed his vehicle with bullets, had become internationally renowned for his investigative reporting, earning Mozambique praise for being at the forefront of Africa’s free press. Cardoso’s death would not just silence his own voice but also those of others: Two years after his assassination, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported a chilling effect on media investigations in Mozambique.

Born in Mozambique in 1951 to Portuguese parents, the journalist, poet and activist was keenly aware of the privileges his race afforded him. He launched himself into a life as a Marxist and activist in neighboring South Africa, where he studied at the University of Witwatersrand. During that time, the apartheid government deported Cardoso to Lisbon, for his activism and work as a translator for Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, the nationalist movement fighting for Mozambican independence from Portugal.

In July 1975, just a few months after his deportation, Mozambique declared independence and Cardoso returned home. He skipped his final exams, which the university had offered to arrange remotely, to enter what Paul Fauvet and Marcelo Mosse describe in their biography, Carlos Cardoso: Telling the Truth in Mozambique, as “the effervescent world of Mozambican journalism.”

Cardoso took a position at the state-owned media agency, but left shortly before the post-independence civil war ended in 1992. That year, he and a group of fellow state-media defectors founded Mediafax, believed to be the world’s first faxed daily paper. While Mediafax had approximately 400 subscribers compared to 30,000 for the government-linked Notícias, its readership was influential and its hard-hitting investigations received international recognition, with French journalists lauding the paper for “breaking the media mold.” Because Mediafax’s contents were copied and redistributed by the faithful, it had far more reach than its subscriber list suggested.

By 1997, Cardoso had broken ranks yet again to establish a similar paper, the Metical, which got its name from the country’s relatively recently established (and at the time failing) currency. His commitment to equality was on full display in Metical’s payroll records: Everyone was paid the same decent wage, whether journalist or janitor. He investigated postwar drug trafficking, government fat cats and a $14 million money laundering scheme at Mozambique’s state bank, BCM. He also served in local government, with a role on the Maputo City Council. In November 2000, associates say, Cardoso was investigating another multimillion-dollar bank fraud and subsequent cover-up.

Nyimpine Chissano

“He was a professional, whose very work of exposing corruption and the ills of the Mozambican rulers as well as their business proxies, had put his life in the firing line,” said Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, while delivering a 2014 lecture dedicated to his friend. “I could not watch Carlos Cardoso’s back.”

After Cardoso’s murder, the Mozambican press was understandably vigilant in covering the investigation. Police errors were rampant from the start, despite promises of a thorough probe, with the crime scene left initially unsecured and key figures not questioned for weeks. Two months after Cardoso’s assassination, all members of the police team working on the case were suspended. In March, one suspect was captured when two Metical journalists spotted him on a bus, overpowered him themselves and then delivered him to the police.

In 2003, Portuguese national Anibal dos Santos was convicted of contracting two men to kill Cardoso and sentenced to 30 years in prison followed by deportation. Dos Santos escaped three times, but each time was caught and returned to serve his sentence. Three suspects arrested in connection with the murder said Nyimpine Chissano, the son of then-President Joaquim Chissano, had bankrolled the assassination. The younger Chissano had been dogged for years by Cardoso’s corruption investigations — three months after Cardoso’s death, Chissano filed a massive defamation lawsuit against Metical — but was never arrested in connection with the assassination. He died in 2007.

A year after Cardoso’s assassination, Metical — then technically owned by Cardoso’s two young children — ceased publication. Since then, only one other journalist has been murdered in Mozambique, according to UNESCO’s records: Paulo Machava, famous himself for covering Cardoso’s slaying, was killed while he was driving home through Maputo in 2015. Meanwhile, Mozambique has steadily dropped in rankings of press freedom: In 2005, it was 49th in the world; this year it was rated 104th, its worst ranking since they began in 2002.

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