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African Paper Arrives by Phone

MEDIAFAX, Africa's first newspaper distributed by facsimile, is pioneering a novel concept that is giving meaning to "the public's right to know."

A creative technical innovation in one of the world's poorest countries, Mediafax has also become a tool of democratization in a country where the state-run media still calls the shots.

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"This is seen as the free press in Mozambique," says editor Carlos Cardoso, a former director of the official state news agency, AIM.

"What we are doing is both new and dangerous," he says. "It is not easy in Africa to uncover corruption. It is a violation of cultural norms to go and talk about people openly."

In its first year, Mediafax has already made a significant contribution by setting a trend toward more investigative forms of journalism, which has had a visible impact on the mainstream media, say Western diplomats.

It has also acted as a catalyst in Mozambique's peace process by being the first journal to run an interview with the leader of the former rebel movement, Renamo, and by being the first publication to drop the automatic "rebel" label when talking about Renamo.

A cease-fire signed in Rome last October calls for the first democratic elections by October this year. A revised Mozambican constitution is based on multi-party democracy and entrenches the freedom of information.

"We were the first publication to take the adjectives out of Renamo," says Cardoso, a small and intense man whose eyes dart from the screen of his word-processor to the reporter who is interviewing him.

"We decided it was time to start treating them as an opposition and to stop calling them bandits," he says.

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"Our colleagues who were the first to quote [Renamo President Afonso] Dhlakama came in for a lot of official pressure.

"Now state-run radio and the state media are doing the same," Cardoso says.

Western diplomats, who are among the most enthusiastic subscribers of Mediafax, say it has made a difference by rolling back the former boundaries of available information. Other subscribers include corporations, government ministries, international aid and development organizations, and diplomats.

It has so irritated officials of the information ministry that they have dubbed the publication "Mediafox."

CARDOZA believes the newspaper has had a direct impact on the state media: "We have forced journalists in the other media to work harder ... we have challenged them to beat us," he says.

"It's very unbureaucratic and it's very fast," says Cardoso, a South African-educated Mozambican of Portuguese descent.

Cardoso and a secretary are the only full-time employees of the newspaper.

They are assisted by about 13 members of Mediacoop, a collective of present and former state-employed journalists who are striving to ensure that Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano's verbal commitment to a free press is translated into practical reality.

Mediafax was the brainchild of Fernando Limo, another former employee of AIM and a Nieman fellow from Harvard University.

Cardoso serves his 300 or so subscribers three times weekly with a mix of news reports, analysis, and informed opinion on developments in Mozambique and Angola, the other former Portuguese colony on the West coast of Africa where a similar transition to democracy has been derailed.

The paper - written in Portuguese - costs the equivalent of $15 per month for individuals, $50 per month for corporations and institutions, and $150 per month for donors.

"It's probably the most expensive newspaper in Africa," Cardoso says.

But he also has the satisfaction of knowing that it has maximum impact because of the influential target audience who are its subscribers.

For a journalist who was once a stalwart of the Marxist-Leninist Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) regime, this is quite a turnaround.

"We were the pro-Frelimo gang of the 1970s," Cardoso says, adding that he and most of his colleagues were agitating for a free and independent media by 1985.

Mediafax, which was started up with a grant from a Norwegian aid agency, breaks even on its running costs as its overhead is low.

It also carries three or four ads on its front page and is hoping that the demand for advertising will grow.

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