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Mozambique: Elections and Foreign Media
Mozambique: Elections and Foreign Media
Date distributed (ymd): 000209
Document reposted by APIC
Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +US policy focus+
This posting contains a commentary/news story from a
Panafrican News Agency (PANA) correspondent in Mozambique,
noting the impact in Mozambique of an article in the
Washington Post based on anonymous sources commenting on the
December Mozambican elections. The report is taken from, and
used by permission from, the Africa News Web Site
(http://www.africanews.org), which serves as a gateway for
PANA and other African news sources.
For additional current news on Mozambique, including updates
on the floods which have ravaged the southern part of the
country in the last week, see
For the most complete set of links to web and e-mail sources
on Mozambique, in Portuguese and in English, see Mozambique
http://www.tropical.co.mz/~wim/moclinks.html (general links)
http://www.tropical.co.mz/~wim/noticias/ (news links)
The Washington Post And The Echo Chamber
Panafrican News Agency February 3, 2000 by Paul Fauvet
Maputo, Mozambique (PANA) - Let us imagine that, two months
after the forthcoming US presidential elections, a Mozambican
newspaper publishes an article claiming that the results were
The article is written by a journalist who has no particular
knowledge or experience of American politics or of the
American electoral system, and has never set foot in the US.
Furthermore the article relies exclusively on anonymous
sources in the Mozambican foreign ministry for its sensational
Would such an article be picked up in the US? Would its claims
be mentioned on US radio and TV networks? Would the US
Secretary of State be forced to appear on television to deny
the claims? We think not.
Indeed, we think that American diplomats would correctly
surmise that such an article was a crude piece of
disinformation and would toss it into the nearest waste paper
But when an American paper (Washington Post) publishes such an
article two months after the Mozambican elections, under the
by-line of a reporter (Steve Mufson) who has, as far as the
Mozambican News Agency (AIM), is aware, no prior knowledge of
Mozambique, and who relies exclusively for his claims of fraud
on anonymous sources in the State Department, then the report
is considered to be credible.
Within 24 hours of its publication Monday, much of the
Mozambican media were referring to the article.
However, Radio Mozambique and Mozambican Television did not
take it at face value, and sought a Mozambican government
Foreign Minister Leonardo Simao had to appear on TV Tuesday
night, patiently explaining that the Mozambican government has
received no accusations of fraud from its American
He said President Bill Clinton has warmly congratulated
Joaquim Chissano on his re-election - which he would hardly
have done had he believed the election was stolen.
No doubt Mozambican Television believed it was behaving in a
responsible and professional manner. But the effect of forcing
government ministers to react to anonymous claims that the
elections were fraudulent is to keep those claims alive: the
cloud of suspicion remains in the air.
This, of course, appears to be the intention of the
disinformation artists who planted the story on the Washington
Post in the first place.
It is worth looking more closely at how the story leapt from
the Washington Post into the Mozambican media.
Mozambican journalists do not subscribe to the Washington
Post. Even those who happen to read English fluently do not
log on to the Washington Post website every day on the chance
that the paper might be carrying something about Mozambique.
The article needed translation and a convenient middleman
before it could reach a Mozambican audience.
That middleman took the shape of the habitually compliant,
habitually servile Portuguese media.
The Portuguese news agency, LUSA, eagerly retailed the Post
story, and so did RDP-Africa, the Portuguese radio service
beamed into Lusophone Africa - they were happy to use a third
rate American article citing anonymous sources, even though
they have their own, competent professionals who live and work
in Mozambique, and who followed the elections and the vote
counting step by step.
This is a well known tactic in intelligence work, one used by
both American and Soviet intelligence agencies during the Cold
You plant a story in one news outlet in one country, with the
intention of getting it reproduced elsewhere.
The target audience is not in the country where the story was
first published, but in the one where it is reproduced. This
is an echo-chamber effect. The article is published in just
one US paper (even the Post's sister paper, the International
Herald Tribune has not carried it), but is then multiplied
across the Portuguese media, and then amplified still further
in the Mozambican media.
The political effects are felt, not in the US, but in
Mozambique, as it adds to the opposition RENAMO campaign to
discredit all Mozambican institutions.
For sure Mufson's anonymous sources know perfectly well how
the media operate.
They know that the Portuguese media are always willing to grab
any hostile article on Mozambique that appears in a supposedly
reputable US publication, and they know that within a matter
of hours the Portuguese version will be on Mozambican news
Mufson's by-line has never appeared on stories related with
Mozambique before. He was not in Mozambique during the
elections, and, as far as AIM can ascertain, he has never been
What sources did Mufson use? Since the article begins with an
attack on Richard Holbrooke, the US ambassador to the UN,
portrayed as naively accepting fraudulent elections in
Mozambique, it is reasonable to assume that the plant comes
from those in the State Department opposed to the Clinton
administration's Africa policy.
Three anonymous sources are cited - "a US official in
Mozambique", "a senior State Department official" and "a
senior US diplomat."
A spate of anonymous sources and a journalist with no track
record of writing on Mozambique or southern Africa - these
should have been warning flags, alerting both Portuguese and
Mozambican editors on the spurious nature of this piece.
There are a couple of named sources: at the end of Mufson's
article, US ambassador to Maputo Brian Curran, defended
Mozambique, saying it deserves to be "on the model pedestal,
even though it's not perfect."
Curran made no mention of fraud, but since his remarks were
thrown into the last paragraph, they were overshadowed by all
the misinformation earlier in the article.
As all journalists ruefully acknowledge, many readers never
reach the end of lengthy articles.
Curran also made the mild remark that RENAMO "feels entitled
to some recognition. I think the (Mozambican) government
should take note and be more inclusive."
This unexceptional sentiment has been wildly misinterpreted by
the Maputo daily, Noticias as "gross interference in
Mozambique's internal affairs."
The most startling claim in Mufson's article is that the
National Elections Commission locked out foreign observers,
and then "tossed out tens of thousands of opposition ballots
in order to inflate the margin of victory" for FRELIMO.
Mufson appears to be confusing two issues here. One was the
rechecking of 'votos nulos' - which are votes declared invalid
at the polling stations.
These were patiently checked, one by one, and a large number
were salvaged, when the election commission decided that
polling station staff had been too strict and that the voters,
though they had not filled in their ballot papers perfectly,
had indicated a clear preference.
Far from prejudicing RENAMO, this worked in its favour since
more of the 'votos nulos' that were eventually accepted were
for RENAMO than for FRELIMO.
The room in which the 'votos nulos' were checked was open to
accredited observers and reporters who wandered in and out
with no difficulty.
The second issue was the problem 'editais' or polling station
reports giving the details of each individual polling station
count. A large number of these were kept out of the final
tally because they lack certain critical information such as
codes of polling stations and number of ballot papers in the
boxes, among others.
Anyone unfamiliar with the Mozambican election would assume,
from Mufson's article, that the elections commission was an
exclusively governmental body. Mufson seems unaware that
RENAMO-appointed members were in the electoral bodies at the
central, provincial and district levels.
Mufson implies that the US NGO, the Carter Centre, also thinks
the vote count was fraudulent.
In fact, in its preliminary report, issued 27 December, the
Carter Centre did complain of lack of adequate access for its
observers. But it added immediately that, despite this, it had
not seen any sign of significant problems in the results
announced by the elections commission.
The centre also said that it had not witnessed or obtained
knowledge about any proven cases of serious irregularities
that could affect the outcome of the election.
It was satisfied that both FRELIMO and RENAMO were present and
participated in most of the vote tabulation and verification.
Mufson's quote from the Carter Centre is thus highly
selective. He suppressed anything in the centre report that is
not in line with the fraud theory of his State Department
Mufson does mention that RENAMO appealed to the Supreme Court
against the results and that its appeal was thrown out. But
his summary of the Supreme Court ruling is woefully
inadequate, and he hints that the court cannot be relied upon
because its members "have been appointed by Chissano."
The practice of the president appointing Supreme Court judges
was not invented in Mozambique, but borrowed from that
venerable document, the Constitution of the United States.
Had Mufson done a little homework, he would have found that
Chissano has not abused his power by making the same blatantly
ideological appointments to the Supreme Court that
characterised the approach to the judiciary of former US
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Quite gratuitously, Mufson throws in a completely untrue claim
about the Mozambican media, alleging that "most" of it is
owned by FRELIMO.
It is strange that the Stalinist mindset ("public ownership =
ownership/control by the ruling party") should hold sway in
the Washington Post.
In reality, FRELIMO does not own Radio Mozambique any more
than the British Labour Party owns the BBC.
The State Department was so irritated by the Washington Post
article to issue 'Press Guidance' restating its earlier
positions and pointing out that the Supreme Court had rejected
"some of the counts of the opposition appeal because they were
accompanied by no proof, others because they had no legal
foundation, and others because of gross errors."
"We note that the opposition has taken its seats in
parliament, and call on all parties to work together to better
the lives of the Mozambican people," the department said.
Finally, the clear lesson from this affair is that the
Mozambican media should not lap up stories about their own
country merely because they have been published in a
prestigious US paper, and served up in a convenient Portuguese
form by LUSA or RDP-Africa.
Our media should, in short, learn how to spot misinformation.
Copyright (c) 2000 Panafrican News Agency. Distributed via
Africa News Online (www.africanews.org). Reposted by
permission on the Africa Policy Distribution List.
This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the
Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary
objective is to widen international policy debates around
African issues, by concentrating on providing accessible
policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide
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