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In early February, Gisela Coelho, burdened by the knowledge that three fellow journalists were about to be questioned by state prosecutors, knew she and her other colleagues, had to do something.

The country’s press union, of which she is vice president, gathered 100 reporters from across the Cape Verdean capital of Praia, and they assembled at the attorney general’s office. Inside, reporters Alexandre Semedo and Daniel Almeida were being grilled over a recent investigation.

Outside, the scores of journalists-turned-protesters held signs bearing simple but serious messages:

Jornalismo não é crime.” Journalism is not a crime.

Não tentem nos calar.” Don’t try to shut us up.

“Society has the right to know everything that is of public interest,” Coelho, executive editor for the Cape Verdean weekly A Naçāo and vice president of the country’s press union, later told Al Jazeera.

For years, that right was guaranteed, sacred even, in this archipelago nation off the coast of West Africa, typically highly regarded for its press freedom.

In fact, in 2020, Reporters Without Borders, also known by its French acronym RSF, ranked Cape Verde 27th in the world for press freedom, higher than the United States, France, Spain and the United Kingdom.

But now, the limits of that freedom are being tested.

In the past three months, three reporters from two Cape Verdean outlets have been brought in for questioning by authorities after reporting on a murder investigation involving a government minister.

Their reports detailed a police investigation into Interior Minister Paulo Rocha, who was allegedly placed at the scene of a 2014 murder while he was deputy director of the judicial police. The victim was a suspect in another murder, of a police officer’s mother.

Rocha has denied any involvement in the murder. The attorney general’s investigation, however, was prompted by the journalists’ alleged disclosing of confidential judicial information in their reporting.

‘Qualified disobedience’

Prosecutors started investigating Santiago Magazine editor Herminio Silves in late January, following up with A Naçāo’s director Semedo and its reporter Almeida earlier last month, for “qualified disobedience” in regards to publishing confidential information.

The reporters have been declared “arguidos” – a Portuguese legal term meaning that they don’t have formal charges levelled against them, but are also in a phase beyond simply assisting the police with an investigation.

It also means they can’t continue to use the classified information they had access to in any successive reporting. The trio must also notify authorities if they leave their homes for more than five days or change their phone numbers.

These investigations are the first to ever be supported by the Cape Verdean prosecutor general, press advocates say.

Sadibou Marong, RSF’s West Africa director, told Al Jazeera that the case against the three journalists is both “unprecedented” and “disturbing”, given Cape Verde’s long history of being spared from press freedom violations.

“This is an attempt of intimidation,” Marong said. “Journalists covering any case, including those in which high-ranking officials or decision-makers are involved, must not be arrested and must not be targeted.”

A spokesman for the attorney general did not respond to a request for comment.

A united pushback

But these moves by the attorney general’s office – which press advocates say are meant to intimidate both the journalists being questioned and the media at large – are being met with resistance.  Reporters in Cape Verde have rallied around their colleagues, staging protests like the one at the attorney general’s office and petitioning members of government, all to challenge the media crackdown.

That unity has been essential in the pushback against the probe, said Angela Quintal, Africa programme director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media rights organisation.

“There really isn’t much hurry for the state to charge them,” she said, adding that declaring them “arguidos” hinders further media investigations into the police investigation.

Beyond protests in Praia on the island of Santiago and in Mindelo on the island of São Vincente, the media in Cape Verde has also responded by contacting members of the government to lobby on their behalf.

They have also started the formal process of petitioning the government to clarify the law on qualified disobedience so that it wouldn’t apply to the media, Coelho said.

In response to clamouring in parliament, the justice minister, Joana Rosa, has signalled that the government could be open to debate on such changes.

Consequently, the investigations into the journalists have attracted attention and debate around the qualified disobedience law “in the media and on social networks, involving journalists, university professors, and jurists,” Almeida, one of the journalists under investigation, told Al Jazeera in a text message.

“The law is clear and does not need to be changed. The problem is [the attorney general’s] biased interpretation,” he said. “According to our interpretation and that of some constitutionalists, the journalist is not bound by judicial secrecy.”

Orlando Rodrigues, a journalist for the state-run Radiotelevisão Cabo-Verdiana who attended the February protest in Praia, said the attorney general’s investigation has had a chilling effect on media coverage of the police investigation.

At the same time, however, he’s convinced that the courts will clear the journalists’ names if the investigations into them aren’t dropped.

“Some journalists engage in self-censorship, some people recognise that. But in general, Cape Verde is a good country for press freedom,” said Rodrigues. “Certain politicians, from time to time, try to bring journalists to court on certain occasions. But that never succeeded in silencing journalists. They continue to do their work. And I think in this case [the journalists] will win.”

For now, the journalists remain “arguidos” and the debates continue in government halls, on social media, and in streetside cafés. And their colleagues across Cape Verde plan to keep their campaign alive.

Coelho in particular doesn’t regard the protests or the legal organising as pressuring the government, but simply the right thing to do. “Cape Verde is known for its press freedom, its democracy,” she said. “We don’t want to go backward. We want to go forward.”

This content was originally published here.

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