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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Mozambique: Elections and Foreign Media

Mozambique: Elections and Foreign Media
Date distributed (ymd): 000209
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +US policy focus+
Summary Contents:
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 (, 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 on-line: (general links)

and (news links)

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


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 fraudulent.

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 claims.

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 basket.

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 reaction.

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 counterparts.

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 War.

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 editors' desks.

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 here.

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 sources.

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 ( 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 range of groups and individuals.

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