Voice of the People trustees charged in Zimbabwe

New York, January 24, 2006—Six trustees of the independent news production company Voice of the People were charged today with broadcasting without a license, which carries a potential two-year prison penalty. Defense lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said her clients appeared in court this morning in the capital, Harare, after learning that police were seeking their arrest.

Police had visited trustees’ houses and had detained two household staff employed by trustee Arnold Tsunga, who is also director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).

The trustees were granted bail and told to report to police every Friday. Tsunga’s driver and caretaker were released without charge after spending three nights in jail for allegedly obstructing an investigation.

The six trustees charged today were: chairman David Masunda, Isabella Matambanadzo, Millicent Phiri, Lawrence Chibwe, Nhlahla Ngwenya, and Tsunga, according to CPJ sources. They are scheduled to appear in court on February 10. VOP Director John Masuku was charged with the same offense on December 23.

VOP staffers produce programs on a variety of community and political issues but do not broadcast directly within Zimbabwe. The programming is transmitted via shortwave from overseas. Local sources say no new programs have been aired since police raided VOP’s Harare offices on December 15, confiscating equipment and files. They also arrested three staff members, who were released after Masuku and Masunda reported to the police on December 19.

ZLHR said the arrests of Tsunga’s household employees represented a disturbing new tactic in which “innocent individuals are being detained in order to unlawfully secure the presence of human rights defenders who have been continually harassed by state authorities and/or individuals acting on their instructions.”

“Zimbabwe’s international standing is eroded every time the government seeks to silence the ever-fewer number of critical voices,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It’s sad to see so much time and resources devoted to quashing the sort of diverse viewpoints that would invigorate Zimbabwean society.”

Police last week arrested journalist Sydney Saize and accused him of writing a false story for the U.S. government-funded Voice of America. Saize was released without charge after spending three nights in police custody, according to the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA).Read CPJ’s alert.