British journalists acquitted, deported

New York, April 15, 2005—
Two British journalists detained in Zimbabwe during parliamentary elections left the country today after being acquitted of the criminal charge of reporting without accreditation from the government-controlled Media and Information Commission.

Toby Harnden, chief foreign correspondent for the London-based Sunday Telegraph, and photographer Julian Simmonds boarded a plane today and safely reached neighboring South Africa, a newspaper spokeswoman said. The journalists had spent two weeks in prison while standing trial.

Harnden and Simmonds were arrested at a polling station in Norton, a town near the capital, Harare, on March 31, during Zimbabwean parliamentary elections. The journalists were charged with violating the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which requires all journalists in Zimbabwe to register with the media commission or face a two-year jail sentence.

The journalists were released on bail from prison yesterday after their acquittal on accreditation charges. They were handed over to immigration authorities for deportation today after being acquitted of a separate charge under Zimbabwe’s immigration law, according to media reports.

Magistrate Never Diza said that state prosecutors failed to prove that Harnden and Simmonds, who said they had traveled to Zimbabwe as tourists, were working in the country illegally. “All in all, the state failed to provide sufficient evidence to show the accused persons have a case to answer,” Diza said, according to news reports.

While Zimbabwean state media reported that hundreds of foreign journalists were accredited to cover the elections, many were refused accreditation and accused of political bias, including all journalists from the BBC and from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). At least one journalist from the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph‘s sister paper, was refused accreditation.