U.S. journalist acquitted but ordered to leave country[Read the July, 2002, Special Report on Zimbabwe, “On a Rampage.”]

New York, July 15, 2002—Andrew Meldrum, the Zimbabwe correspondent for the British Guardian newspaper, was today acquitted of “publishing false information” and “abusing journalistic privileges.” However, Meldrum, the first journalist to be tried under Zimbabwe’s repressive new media laws, was ordered to leave the country within 24 hours.

Meldrum, a U.S. citizen who has been a permanent resident of Zimbabwe for more than 20 years, was charged under the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act for a Guardian article that cited a report in Zimbabwe’s independent Daily News. The Daily News story alleged that young members of the ruling ZANU-PF party had beheaded an opposition supporter [see Special Report].

The story was later declared inaccurate, and the Guardian published a retraction.

The judge found that Meldrum had taken reasonable steps to verify his story and had not deliberately published falsehoods. According to sources in Zimbabwe, Judge Godfrey Macheyo also said the Daily News report “looked balanced.”

Despite the acquittal, Meldrum was served with two deportation orders giving him 24 hours to leave the country. The orders had been signed nearly a week earlier, indicating that the government intended to expel him from the country regardless of the verdict.

Meldrum has filed an appeal, which will be heard tomorrow in the High Court.

“The situation in Zimbabwe becomes more outrageous by the day,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “While we welcome Meldrum’s acquittal, he never should have been tried in the first place, and he certainly should not be deported.”

The Zimbabwean media operated in relative freedom until 1999, when Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka, two journalists from the independent weekly The Standard, were arrested and tortured for writing about a coup plot by the army.

Since then, the government of President Robert Mugabe has systematically targeted journalists and independent publications and introduced increasingly repressive laws to punish those deemed to be against Mugabe’s dictatorial regime. Since the president’s March 15, 2002, re-election, 14 journalists have been arrested for their work.