In conversation with Mozambican activist

Anti-poverty activist and owner of largest paper speaks on various issues plaguing his country.

Mozambican woman reading newspaper
Erik Charas founded Jornal@Verdade, said to be the largest circulating newspaper in Mozambique

Erik Charas, a young Mozambican businessman, is also one of the most vocal faces of anti-poverty activism in the African country.

A trained engineer, owner and president of Jornal@Verdade – reportedly the largest circulating newspaper of the country – he stands for everything which his country is not.

An avid Twitter user, he believes dissemination of news and information can change a society and create desire among the people. With his paper he has been able to reach a larger number of people, but he says he has a long way to go.

He spoke to Al Jazeera on a range of issues from the recent police brutality to his newspaper and his vision for the country.

Al Jazeera: You have achieved so much at a fairly young age. You are a successful entrepreneur as well as a social activist. Tell me what motivates you?

Charas: I am passionate and crazy to do all that. I want to do so much for my country and it’s a such a great privilege to be in this position. Mozambique is a unique country, it has such a strategic geographic position, many mineral deposits and it has a stable government for many years but yet the country has one of the poorest people in the world. I was born and grew up in this country and that made me think about it. I have great responsibility to work for my country.

Al Jazeera: How do you balance business with social work?

Charas: It’s not very difficult to strike a balance between business and social responsibilities, one can function independent of the other. People would say you can not integrate business with social work. You can not afford to criticise government as you may lose business. But lots of people idenitfy with our vision and  join our business. In the beginning it was tough but now people have come on board and want to work for us.
I have background in social development as I have been exposed to do business with social consciousness. Young people want clean and ethical business and want to work for the society. Once they join us, they have a passion and enjoy the work. I really enjoy this part of transformation.

Al Jazeera: How has your philosophy shaped up your business?

Charas believes his newspaper can help eradicate illiteracy and poverty

Charas: I stand for social justice and have implementated it in my business model for my newspaper Jornal@Verdade [Verdade in Portguese means truth]. It’s one of the first countries to have this model.
Last year in September, police fired at demonstrators protesting against a steep hike in bread prices killing at least 13 people. Police used brutal force and used live bullets against the unarmed protesters like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The government instead of taking action against the policemen, ensured that all sorts of communication was blocked. So they blocked SMS services and called the protesters vandals. The government needed to allow people to communicate. State-supported and newspapers and TV networks ignored the police high-handedness.

So, we decided to become the voice of people. We created a website, created groups on Facebook to disseminate and share information regarding the police brutality. An 11-year-old boy was shot in front of our editor while the government continued with repressive measures.

So, we put up videos from the scene on YouTube, tweeted about the horrific incident. In fact, we became the channel through which people communicated their grievances. The government got worried at this.

Al Jazeera: What is your take on the recent police action against protesters?

Charas: On April 6 people were protesting against irregularities in wages and compensation but they were brutally attacked by the police. And there was no action against the police, instead about 24 protesters were beaten up and arrested randomly. Not only that they were charged with vandalism and transfered to a maximum security prison.

We are trying to talk to the police and visit the arrested people inside jail.

Wary of yet another riot the government’s clear message is: no protests. The government is more than happy to suppress any group which plans to protest and stand up against the government.

The situation here is not very different from Egypt or other Arab countries in that the same people have been in power for too long. We have the same party ruling since country’s independence so there has been little change in the political leadership. The country witnessed a transition from communism to social democracy but a section of the leadership is still against free market economy.

Al Jazeera: Did you face any pressure from the government?

Charas: I have not got any formal threat from the governemnt but in an informal way I do have to face some problems. In fact, some of my businesses have faced difficulty. My plan on affordable housing and transporattion have faced huge impediments and strange regulations.

Al Jazeera: What is the human rights situation in the country? Amnesty International in a report in 2008 indicted the government on police brutality.

Charas: The government did not care about the Amnesty International report and it made up an action plan to appease donors, as a huge amount of government’s budget runs on donor funding.

Instead of checking up the high-handedness of the security services the government has been strengthening them. In fact, the budget for State Intelligence Security Services [SISS] was hiked and parliament approved new operating structure of that. Right to Information Act has been languising in the parliament for the last five years.

This shows government’s priority is security issues, not governance and people’s interests. Significantly, almost 75 per cent of the parliament seats are controlled by the ruling Frelimo party members.

There are also plans to make changes in the consitution and one of the biggest matter of concern is that they may increase the presidential term limits. People are unaware about the other changes. Information critical to the government have been suppressed and it seems there is danger of a certain level of manipulation by the government.

Charas says his newspaper helps Mozambicans make informed choices

Al Jazeera: There have been allegations that the last elections were not entirely free and fair. How legitimate is the current government?

Charas: There is no question about the legitimacy of this government. It’s a legitimate government for sure.
But the government resorted to many arbitrary measures which ensured the opposition was divided and weak. Out of the 44 candidates put up by the newly formed MDM [Movimento Democratico de Mocambique] party, 40 were disqualified on flimsy grounds. Basically, the government used the law where it suited the ruling party.

After the election, the donor countries came together and expressed concnern at the government. As a result fund was withheld and last year the government did not get money for almost five months.

Al Jazeera: What is the opposition doing in raising the people’s issues? Where does the main opposition party stand?

Charas: The opposition is weak and the populairty of main opposition party, Renamo [Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana], has been going down and its credibility has suffered drastically. They have not been able to articulate the main issues concerning the public and moreover, people still associate Renamo with the civil war.

In this situation who is going to take up issues concerning the people? A former Renamo leader Davez Simango formed MDM just 10 months before the last polls which were held in 2009 and it did well despite heavy government restrictions.

Interestingly, some of the donors did speak against the government action against MDM.

Al Jazeera: What role is your newspaper playing here?

Charas: We want to restore a sense of moral value among the people with the help of this paper. We are source of news for the people. We reflect people’s voices. We carry people’s problem to the government and the cocerned authorities, e.g. electricity department, municipality etc. There’s a huge emphasis on people’s voice.

Al Jazeera: Would you like to share details about how you decide your content? What is your emphasis?

Charas: My newspaper is apolitical and only focuses on people’s issues. It’s a weekly and distributed free of cost yet makes profit. We ensure that peoples’ voice reaches the corridors of power. In fact, we source almost 35 per cent of our news directly from people in the form of letters, sms etc. We also base our editorial on people’s complaints.

We call it a social intervention newspaper. We provide news which are relevant to the people so that they make informed choice. We also have created mandatory health section, and also focus on environmental and gender issues. Our health page gets huge response and we try to carry news and information that’s relevant to the public like AIDS awareness and sexually transmitted diseses. In fact, we get about 500 questions per week on the health section only.

Government has fought with us, as we chose to carry voices of the people rather than the voice of the government unlike other government supported newspapers and TVs. For this we have been penalised, we have faced action.

We also have a section called complaint book. We run people’s problems and then seek government’s and concernd authorities’ reaction and then publish all in a very transparent manner.

But despite that we have to do a lot. According to latest estimates my newspaper’s circulation now stands at 600,000 which is just 10 per cent of the total population who can read. That means we have to still reach to the 90 per cent of those who can read.

Al Jazeera: Mozambique has seen rapid growth in recent years but the incidence of poverty still remains very high. Why do you think growth is not trickling down?

Charas: Some of the economic indicators seems to be manipulated by the government. But reality is that government is taking too long in taking action. Poor are becoming poorer, there is no rise in salary, exports and foreign direct investment [FDI]. There are not many new factories, companies coming up.

We do see a lot of intention on the part of the government but there is no real result on the ground. The reason is there is a level of incompetency in the government. Certain level of government is badly run. We need to raise the efficiency. There’s a total lack of accountability in case some plan fails, nobody is questioned or held responsible as a result we don’t see better results.

Source: Al Jazeera