COLUMN

A question of qualified support

An act of foolishness does not justify media and government insensitivity

Barbara Amiel February 16 1981
COLUMN

A question of qualified support

An act of foolishness does not justify media and government insensitivity

Barbara Amiel February 16 1981

A question of qualified support

An act of foolishness does not justify media and government insensitivity

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

There are three lessons to be learned from my detention in Mozambique, the story of which most readers of the Canadian media probably know. First, I was a fool to enter Mozambique without a visa. Let me put this more strongly: I would have been a fool to go to Mozambique—or any other lawless country—with a visa. Fools get their documents processed and then go to frolic in the Indian Ocean 15 km from the place where political prisoners are tied in their cells with piano wire. Fools spend hard currency to prop up regimes that jail and torture their dissenting citizens. What I did was not mere foolishness. It was criminal negligence.

Of course my two companions and I didn’t bribe or force our way into Mozambique. We simply disregarded the conscientious warning of the South African border authorities and, fully expecting to be turned back, presented our visa-less passports to the barely literate Mozambican soldiers at the Garcia border crossing. Confused, they waved us through—and we were inside. Though I didn’t want to go myself, I could and ought to

to a lack of natural resources. The ocean teems with fish, scooped up by the East German and Russian factory boats in exchange for the weapons and loans with which the ruling Frelimo party maintains its oppression. Amnesty International’s 1980 report on Mozambique lists “detention without trial, political imprisonment and the death penalty” as major concerns. Civil liberties there are ranked by Freedom House with those of Cambodia—and a notch lower than those of Haiti and the Soviet Union.

After two days in Maputo, we drove to the border of Swaziland. It is an old saying that one can tell a dictatorship by which is easier, getting in or getting out of the country. To my companions’ astonishment, exit procedures—nonexistent in Canada—proved to be the only thing that mattered in Mozambique. Predictably, we were arrested. I will not

‘Canada would not lift a finger if a Canadian woman were stoned for adultery in Saudi Arabia

have protested more strongly. However, in defence of my two companions, I can say the following. As young North Americans educated in the ’60s and early ’70s, imbued with the assumptions of campus left-liberalism, Marxist regimes held less apprehension for them. They regarded stories of the arbitrary, capricious and cruel nature of such regimes as examples of red-baiting paranoia. Coupled in their minds with this left-wing error was the much older right-wing error of Western arrogance. Nipping into 85-per-cent illiterate Mozambique seemed easy. Driving toward Maputo they were elated.

The second lesson has to do with the nature of Mozambique, a fertile lush country brought to the verge of chaos and starvation by the Marxist economy. Even before tasting the reality of Machava prison, the idea of playing tourist in Maputo’s Hotel Palona (where Cuban and Russian “advisers” stuffed themselves with fresh fruit, milk and liquor, while outside the hotel women and children sat on the pavement hoping for bread) struck me as immoral and tasteless. Hunger in Mozambique is not due

dwell on the well-publicized details of the following 10 days.

The third and perhaps most important lesson lies in the reaction of the Canadian media and government to our more-luck-than-brains escapade. Eventually we were released from Machava prison—due solely to the vigorous intervention of the American and British embassies, which we managed to notify of our predicament after we were detained. Canada did not help and did not protest. Media reaction was predictable. The CBC’s As It Happens put on the air a government spokesman from Mozambique who charged us with (a) bribing our way into the country (b) espionage and (c) not paying our hotel bills. The CBC did not see fit to call us for rebuttal. An organization called The Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa circulated a press release repeating the same charges. Although my fellow journalists must have known they were ludicrous, the main angle of their stories did not become the unmasking of the smear campaign launched against us but simply the repetition of the accusations. The Globe

and Mail contented itself by failing to identify its “expert” on Africa, York University Professor John Saul, as a member of the organization of Frelimo apologists that sent out the press release in the first place. The existence of our stamped and dated hotel receipts did not, in the eyes of the media, undermine the credibility of Mozambique’s Canadian friends.

But even the Mozambique government could not deny that we were detained without consular access or legal assistance for 10 days. One would have thought that this fact alone would have been enough for Canada to protest—as the British and American embassies immediately did. But an External Affairs official commented only that people walking around Canada without their passports stamped would receive much the same treatment—a transparent lie—while External Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan summed up our government’s attitude: “While the circumstances of their detention were undoubtedly very bad, there is no evidence that they were any worse than those to which citizens of Mozambique are normally exposed. ... In other words, there is no evidence of unusual treatment at all . . . there would be no grounds for a letter of protest.”

Good news for Canadian travellers. Presumably this means that Canada would not lift a finger if a Canadian man were jailed for consorting with a black woman in South Africa; if a Canadian woman were stoned for adultery in Saudi Arabia, or if a Canadian of either sex were sent from a kangaroo court to a labor camp in the Soviet Union. It is hardly sufficient to say that a person has broken the laws of a certain country and has been treated no worse than the country’s own citizens. Our ambassador Ken Taylor broke Iranian “laws” by rescuing six Americans.

Of course Taylor’s actions were courageous and moral, ours mindless and negligent. But if what happened to us can throw some light on the moral attitudes of our media and current government, our experience might have been of some small inadvertent use. And, since it is the tragedy of this century that many of its best men and women are in political prisons, it was a privilege for me as a Canadian to stand next to some of them, if only for 10 days.