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U.S. citizen tried under Zimbabwe's tough new press laws

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    NMU         ZIMBABWE         Newsgathering         Jun 17, 2002    

U.S. citizen tried under Zimbabwe’s tough new press laws

  • An American reporter for Britain’s The Guardian could face two years in jail for publishing information critical of the government.

An American citizen became the first journalist to test Zimbabwe’s harsh new media laws.

Andrew Meldrum appeared in court June 12 as the first of a dozen journalists to be tried on charges of “abuse of journalistic privileges by publishing falsehoods.” The 50-year-old U.S. citizen, who was reporting for a British newspaper, could face up to two years if found guilty under the country’s new security and media laws, which essentially make publishing critical information on the government a crime. Meldrum pleaded not guilty.

The U.S. State Department denounced the country’s “use of new draconian laws” that restrict the freedom of speech in Zimbabwe.

“The United States condemns the government of Zimbabwe’s continuing harassment of the free press and calls on it to cease all such action,” department spokesman Richard Boucher told the Associated Press.

Meldrum was arrested and jailed for publishing an account of an alleged beheading of a northwestern Zimbabwe woman by the country’s ruling party under President Robert Mugabe. He picked up the story after reading accounts of the incident in Zimbabwe’s only independent daily news source, the Daily News.

Soon after, the government denied the killing happened. The Daily News retracted and apologized for its original article. Two of the paper’s reporters, Lloyd Mudiwa and Collin Chiwanza, were arrested April 30, the day before Meldrum was picked up.

Zimbabwe’s new Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, which was passed in February and took effect on March 22, allows for journalists found to have published “falsehoods” to be fined up to $1,900 and jailed for up to two years. The law also forbids foreign reporters from working in the country and prohibits criticism of the country’s leadership and law enforcement.

One of the Zimbabwean journalists is standing trial this week in the same Harare court as Meldrum. The journalists are being sped through trial and are being harshly punished under the new access law, said Robert Meenard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit organization that advocates global press freedom.

“Usually when journalists are arrested in Zimbabwe, they are freed on bail almost immediately, after which the case . . . rarely comes to anything,” Meenard said. “In this instance, the government seems to have decided to fast-track this case and apply this very repressive law.”

Although it is now unclear how and why the woman died, Meldrum maintains that he did not knowingly publish the story without verifying the case’s facts, according to his attorney Beatrice Mtetwa. She told the magistrate court that the state commonly raises intentional charges against independent media in the country, especially since civil unrest in Zimbabwe began two years ago and the new national security measures have been tailored to squelch antigovernment reports.

She went further, telling the court the charges against the American were “clear abuse and selective use” of the laws.

The U.S. State Department would not comment on possible moves to support Meldrum, but spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz said the department “obviously supports freedom of the press wherever U.S. citizens are.”

CL

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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