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New York, June 20, 2000 — Three journalists from the independent Zimbabwean weekly The Standard were sentenced to pay massive fines after a Harare court found them guilty of criminal defamation last week, sources in Zimbabwe told CPJ.
On June 16, Harare magistrate Victoria Sithole found publisher Clive Wilson, former acting editor Andy Moyse, and staff reporter Chengetai Zvuaya guilty of intentionally publishing a false story alleging that the government had printed the country’s new draft constitution in September 1999, long before state-appointed commissioners completed their legal responsibility of canvassing the population for their views on constitutional issues. The January 30 article quoted anonymous sources at Government Printers, the state printing company.
In a letter to the editor published in the following issue of The Standard, Jonathan Moyo of the Constitutional Commission dismissed the newspaper’s allegation as a “criminal lie.” Moyo claimed that the draft constitution could not possibly have been printed before Parliament’s plenary session on November 28, 1999, since the draft was still being amended until that date.
In its February 20 edition, The Standard apologized to the authorities, admitting that the scoop was partly fabricated. As a result of this confession, acting editor Moyse resigned from the paper. At the June 16 sentencing hearing, Sithole fined the three journalists US$4000, US$8000, and US$6000 respectively. Wilson received the heaviest fine because the court held him morally responsible for the fabrication, according to CPJ’s sources in Harare.
“Fabricating news is a violation of journalistic ethics, which The Standard has taken steps to address,” said CPJ Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi. “But this is not a criminal matter. Civil penalties provide adequate redress in cases where an individual has been defamed; CPJ believes journalists should never go to jail for what they write. We would also respectfully remind Zimbabwean authorities that unlike individuals, governments cannot be libeled.”
Only one of the 400 constitutional commissioners appointed by President Robert Mugabe filed a criminal defamation complaint against the three journalists, CPJ sources said. Defense lawyers have announced that they will appeal both the conviction and the sentence.