Times reporter released on bail, trial set for this week

New York, April 7, 2008—A New York Times reporter and a British national were released on bail from Zimbabwe’s Harare Central Prison today after spending five days in detention on charges of reporting without accreditation.

The award-winning Times journalist, Barry Bearak, is currently receiving medical treatment for a chest infection and a back injury he sustained after falling onto a concrete floor from his prison bed, which was 7 feet (2 meters) off the ground, according to the paper.

Bearak’s passport is being held by police and he has been ordered to remain in Zimbabwe to appear in court on Thursday. The legal charges against him have changed throughout his detention but he is expected to face the original charges of practicing without accreditation, according to the Times. Defense Lawyer Harrison Nkomo told CPJ that charges should be dropped since reporting without accreditation is no longer considered a criminal offense in light of January reforms to Zimbabwe’s accreditation laws.

According to Agence France-Presse, Bearak and the British national have been released on 300 million Zimbabwean dollars bail (US$10,000).

“We are relieved that our colleague is out on bail,” said CPJ’s executive director Joel Simon said. “The charges against Barry Bearak have been murky at best. These spurious charges should be dropped and Bearak should be freed immediately.”

The office of Zimbabwe’s acting attorney general, Bharat Tateo, told the police last week that there was no legal case against Bearak and recommended his release and the release of the British national, said Irene Petras, the director of the Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights.

Zimbabwe’s restrictive journalist accreditation law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, has been used to block international and some local reporters from covering the elections, CPJ reported on March 27. Only a handful of foreign journalists received accreditation despite 300 accreditation requests, according to the pro-government daily The Sunday Mail.

President Robert Mugabe’s government passed the draconian accreditation law on the eve of the last presidential election in March 2002 to suppress international coverage. Mugabe then signed an amended version of the law in January, which decriminalized practicing journalism without accreditation.

Since 2005, Zimbabwean authorities have used the accreditation law six times to jail foreign journalists and censor coverage.