In Mozambique, new licensing fees have raised the cost of doing journalism — and may threaten media freedom

Display of newspapers published in Mozambique. Photos by author.

New licensing fees for media workers that went into force in Mozambique on August 22 could make it prohibitively expensive for journalists do their jobs. Many see them as a threat to press freedom in the country.

Approved by the Mozambican government on 23 July 2018, the new fee structure was introduced with a legal decree setting fee rates for media accreditation that will affect news outlets and foreign correspondents — and could be especially painful for those with small budgets.

The decree document defines the administration, licensing, renewal, endorsement, and advertising for outlets of written press, radios, television, and digital platforms, as well as the accreditation for foreign and Mozambican journalists and freelancers.

Since the measure was announced by Mozambique’s Bureau of Information, GABINFO (an entity answering to the prime minister) it has been contested by various organizations, including Amnesty International which described it as “a blatant attempt to clamp down on journalists”. The decree comes just a few months ahead of municipal elections in October 2018. Mozambique will hold national elections in 2019.

Pushback and controversy

Drafted secretly and without consultation or debate with members of the media, the decree establishes a media regulator — a first for Mozambique — and imposes a fee structure under which journalists and media outlets will need to pay high fees in order to establish and maintain accreditation.

Mozambique's new media decree fee structure requires media workers and outlets to pay a set of fee in order to establish and maintain their accreditation, with renewals every five years.

  • Foreign correspondents pay 500,000 metical (USD $8450), and the same amount for renewal of accreditation.
  • National correspondents working for foreign media outlets pay 200,000 metical (USD $3383) for accreditation and renewal.
  • Foreign freelancers will pay 150,000 metical (USD $2537) and Mozambican freelancers 30,000 metical (USD $507) for accreditation and renewal.
  • Media outlets will pay between two and four million metical (USD $38,330 to $67,670) for accreditation and renewal.
  • Community radio stations will pay an initial licensing fee of 50,000 metical (USD $855) and an annual licensing tax of 3000 metical ($50).

Media workers and outlets that fail to pay licensing fees will have their licenses revoked.

The fees were described by Mozambican online newspaper @Verdade as “astronomical”. The independent weekly publication Savana called them “draconian“.

Indignation with the measure led a group of Mozambican media professionals to submit a petition to the national ombudsman calling for the decree to be declared unconstitutional.

Fee schemes of this nature can have a disproportionate effect on small media outlets along with independent and freelance media workers, who may be unable to pay the fees and thus forced to either stop reporting, or seek out unauthorized means of doing so, which could lead to other consequences.

Fátima Mimbirre, a researcher at the Centre for Public Integrity, said that no private media outlet would be in a position to pay these taxes, citing community radio as a case in point:

Muito recentemente, as rádios comunitárias tiveram de pedir isenção do pagamento das taxas anuais do uso do espectro radio-eléctrico porque nenhuma estava em condições de pagar, pelo que, com as novas taxas, é certo que muitas irão à falência, o que seria uma pena, sabido o papel que estas rádios têm na democratização do direito à informação e garantir outros direitos aos cidadãos principalmente das zonas rurais.

Very recently, community radios had to ask for exemption from paying annual taxes for the use of radio frequencies because none of them were in a position to pay, and so, with the new taxes it is certain that many will go into bankruptcy. This would be a shame given the role that these radios have in the democratization of the right to information and guaranteeing other rights to citizens mainly in rural areas.

The Order of Lawyers of Mozambique (OAM), considered the fees to be “excessive” and said that they could restrict the right of access to information:

Olhando para nossa realidade as taxas parece-nos serem tão exageradas que irão eventualmente eliminar alguns órgãos de comunicação social, o que é mau porque de forma indirecta estamos a coarctar o direito à informação… a OAM não é contra a introdução de taxas na comunicação social, o que defendemos é que devam ter em conta a realidade moçambicana.

Looking at our reality, the taxes seem to us to be so excessive that they will eventually eliminate some media outlets which is negative because, in an indirect way, we are restricting the right to information… OAM is not against the introduction of taxes on media outlets, what we argue for is that they must account for the Mozambican reality.

Similarly, the coordinator of the Africa Program for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Angela Quintal, said that this is probably the worst fee structure in sub-Saharan Africa and it would constitute an attempt to block the independent press:

Estou surpreendida. Creio que Moçambique apresenta provavelmente uma das piores taxas de acreditação de jornalistas. Já vimos tentativas de governos tentarem fazer algo parecido…Na África subsariana, já vimos a imposição de taxas nas redes sociais no Uganda, mas este caso de Moçambique é exagerado. Para o Comité, esta é uma tentativa do governo impedir a imprensa independente, bloquear a diversidade de vozes, fechar o espaço e privilegiar a imprensa estatal

I am surprised. I think that Mozambique has probably one of the worst fee structures for journalists’ accreditation. We have already seen attempts by governments to do something similar…In sub-Saharan Africa, we have already seen the imposition of taxes on social media in Uganda, but this case in Mozambique is excessive. For the Committee, this is an attempt by the government to hinder the independent press, restrict the diversity of voices, close space, and privilege the state press

Alongside Uganda's “social media tax”, the fee also brings to mind the recent so-called “blogger tax” law in Tanzania, which establishes a blogger registry and requires bloggers to pay a USD $900 annual fee to publish online. Breaches of the law can result in astronomical fines, or imprisonment.

Mozambique's decree does not set out the rationale for fixing the high rates, nor does it explain how the fee revenues will contribute to the improvement of press freedom, only mentioning that 60% of the fees coming from this measure will go to the state budget and 40% to GABINFO.

‘We want to make the communications sector a robust and sustainable industry’

In an interview with the newspaper Savana, GABINFO President Emilia Moiane addressed criticism of the new decree, stating that the fees are intended to make the communications sector a “robust and sustainable industry” similar to other economic sectors which contribute to state finances:

Nós queremos uma indústria que possa ser sustentável. Nós queremos que os jornais estejam na praça com sustentabilidade. Quem entra para o mercado da comunicação social tem de ter capacidade de se sustentar. Não estamos a coarctar nenhuma liberdade. Estamos a criar condições para que quem está no jornalismo diga “sim senhor”, está no mercado, numa indústria. Não queremos eliminar os mais fracos. Nós queremos ter um mercado da comunicação social sustentável.

We want an industry that can be sustainable. We want the newspapers to be operating sustainably. Whoever enters the communications market has to have the capacity to sustain themselves. We are not restricting any freedom. We are creating conditions for whoever is working in journalism to say “yes sir”, they are in the market, in an industry. We do not want to eliminate the weakest. We want to have a sustainable media market.

The Institute of Media in Southern Africa (MISA – Moçambique) interpreted this comment as a statement of noncompliance with the principle of free public services:

O decreto parte do pressuposto de que os media, em primeiro lugar, são um sector comercial e lucrativo, o que viola o princípio funcional e democrático do papel dos media – que são um espaço público que deve ser acessível a todos e promovendo a informação aos cidadãos a custo zero. Ao incrementar taxas de licenciamento, o Governo está a transmitir a ideia de que o produto dos media pode ser vendido a qualquer custo, o que viola o princípio de acessibilidade para os cidadãos, pois pode tornar os custos operacionais mais elevadas…. o Direito à Informação não pode ser medido sob ponto de vista de valores monetários.”

The decree starts from the presupposition that media, first of all, is a commercial and lucrative sector, which violates the operational and democratic principle of the media – which is a public space that should be accessible to all and offering information to citizens at zero cost. In increasing licensing fees, the government is conveying the idea that the product of the media can be sold at any cost, which violates the principle of accessibility to citizens, since it could make operational costs higher… the right to information cannot be measured from the viewpoint of monetary value.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to cancel the fees, stating that they are a “huge setback” for press freedom and access to information in Mozambique.

A day before the decree came into force, GABINFO met with journalists, correspondents, and freelancers to create a commission to analyse how the fee rates could be improved so as to benefit the different parties. However, this will happen while the decree is already in force.

It should be noted that the high fees add to numerous other problems affecting media professionals in the country. Various media outlets and journalists continue being targeted by threats and intimidation, especially in rural areas, as Reporters Without Borders noted in its World Press Freedom Index for 2018, where Mozambique ranked at 99 of 180 countries.

Recently, a study published by MISA said that threats to press freedom rose from 11 reported cases in 2016 to 21 cases in 2017.

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