Zimbabwean reporter jailed, beaten and paper threatened over coverage

New York, April 2, 2007— A reporter of an independent Zimbabwean weekly was jailed, beaten, and charged by police in the capital Harare in connection with coverage of the recent unrest in Zimbabwe, according to local journalists.

Gift Phiri of the London-based The Zimbabwean was charged with practicing journalism without accreditation under Zimbabwe’s draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) after being assaulted Sunday by several police officers in Harare central police station, Rangu Nyamurundira of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights told CPJ. Phiri’s application for accreditation with the official Media Information Commission was pending since January, according to The Zimbabwean editor Wilf Mbanga. Phiri remained in custody today and was expected to appear in court on Tuesday.

At the time of his arrest, police had accused Phiri of involvement in recent bombings against police stations in Harare, and of “publishing falsehoods” in connection with a series of recent articles, according to local journalists. The articles included a report alleging that Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) had taken over security responsibilities at Harare’s airport, according to Mbanga. Zimbabwean authorities did not deny the allegation, according to local journalists. Phiri was also attacked over his paper’s publication of the names of state security agents allegedly responsible for beatings of opposition supporters, according to Nyamurundira.

The arrest came two days after The Zimbabwean’s London office received an anonymous brown envelope in the mail containing an alleged “death list” circling the names of Phiri and Mbanga among 27 others allegedly targeted for “executions” by the Zimbabwe Intelligence Corps and the “[ruling] Zanu PF Security hit squad,” according to Mbanga and CPJ research. “Transgressions of circled persons arise from publishing and communicating false information prejudicial to the state of the Republic of Zimbabwe,” said the March 22 memo signed by “C[omra]de Eno, President’s Office.”

“We condemn the attack and charges against Gift Phiri, who is being targeted for reporting on news for one of the few remaining independent publications in Zimbabwe. We are also troubled by the death threats against Phiri and Wilf Mbanga,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the authorities to urgently investigate the threats and to drop all charges against Gift Phiri.”

It is not the first time Phiri was targeted for his work. In February 2006, he was attacked by unidentified assailants who accused him of working for foreign media after State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa threatened journalists “driven by the love for United States dollars and British pounds,” according to CPJ research.

Mbanga, a cofounder of the defunct leading independent Daily News, founded The Zimbabwean, the collaborative work of Zimbabwean journalists in exile and anonymous reporting in the country, in response to AIPPA’s licensing regime. Mbanga left Zimbabwe in 2003 after a story he published on the militant activities of youth groups in Zimbabwe landed him the official status of “enemy of the people,” according to CPJ research.