Information Poverty Just Got More Expensive

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If health clinics in a poor country suddenly raised patient fees for a visit from a dollar to $100, howls of protest would follow. If public schools slammed their doors in the faces of kids who didn’t hand over a month’s wages from their parents, communities would rush into the streets.

In Mozambique, it’s the free flow of information, dissent and public scrutiny of government that suddenly is threatened with suffocation by government fees. Under a decree that went into effect in August, a community radio station in the Indian Ocean nation in southern Africa faces an $850 licensing fee, twice the country’s per-capita income, while local television stations would pay at least three times that amount. A state-owned publication would pay 1,000 Mozambique meticals, about $17, while a private news publication would be charged 200 times as much.

International correspondents would owe the equivalent of $8,500 for official permission to work in the country, a hefty surcharge for news gathering.

The watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists in New York called the fees “outrageous” and urged the government to reverse the levies. “Not only do these fee increases by the Mozambican government make it practically impossible for independent press to continue working, they also lay bare a flagrant attempt to undermine transparency ahead of elections and as the country brokers natural resource deals,” Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, said from Johannesburg.

Tomas Vieira Mario, president of Mozambique’s press regulator, told CPJ that the fees violate the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

In an Internet world where information creates economic value, fuels opportunity and exposes wrongdoing, access to information is as much a poverty-fighting imperative as health care or basic education. In an impoverished country whose economy is about to be radically reshaped by natural resource extraction, the public’s need to follow the money is becoming acute.

With a gross domestic product per capita of about $415, Mozambique needs a big boost, and natural gas discoveries in the Rovuma Basin offshore promise ballooning cash from overseas buyers. Public oversight would ensure that the windfall gets channeled into social spending to push back poverty.

anadarko mozambique
Anadarko Unleashes Mozambique’s Offshore Cash Flow

Mozambique’s council of ministers approved a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project by Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum in February, and America’s Exxon Mobil and Italy’s Eni are developing another project, according to Bloomberg. Mozambique could become the world’s fourth-biggest gas exporter. Anadarko vows on its web site to “contribute meaningfully to the long-term prosperity of Mozambique.” That would be an SDG win – if Mozambique loosens its grip on the media to ensure we get there.