Zimbabwe journalists charged after military-MDC story

Cape Town, South Africa, May 8, 2013–Police in Harare have filed criminal charges against two Zimbabwean journalists on accusations they published “false statements prejudicial to the state” in a story about behind-the-scenes discussions between military leaders and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. 

The April 26 story in the Zimbabwe Independent claims that Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change had engaged in “sensitive high-level talks” with senior members of the military ahead of this year’s general elections in an effort to reassure them their jobs would be safe if President Robert Mugabe were to lose in the general election due this year. No date has been set for the vote.

Police came to the offices of the privately owned weekly on Monday and ordered editor Dumisani Muleya and chief reporter Owen Gagare, to report to Harare Central police station the next day.  “We were there for seven hours while they charged us, took our fingerprints and statements,” Muleya said, describing how he and his colleague were questioned by police. “They wanted to know who was the source for our story and tried to pressurize us.” He said the journalists would not identify unnamed sources for the story, although they noted that one source had been named in the piece. The charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. No court date has been set.

“Vigorous, unfettered news reporting is an essential element of any democracy, particularly ahead of the upcoming elections when Zimbabweans will want to make informed choices,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. “Independent journalism that throws light on the attitudes and intentions of powerful groups within society must be nurtured.”

Mugabe is reported to be seeking a vote on June 29, 2013, the date on which his five-year term ends and the constitution orders parliament to be dissolved. However, opposition leaders within the unity government want the elections postponed until September. The inter-governmental Southern African Development Community is also pushing for Mugabe to implement the reforms outlined in Zimbabwe’s new constitution before elections proceed.

Tawanda Zhuwarara of Zimbabwe’s Lawyers for Human Rights, which is representing Muleya and Gagare, told CPJ that this is a “very serious case,” in part because it concerned the military. Zhuwarara noted a 1999 episode in which the military secretly detained and mistreated two journalists who reported on dissent in its ranks. Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto of the independent Standard newspaper were held incommunicado by the military for more than 10 days during which they were severely beaten, according to CPJ research.  Charges against them were later dropped.

The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) said that the new arrests “make a very strong case for urgent media legislative reforms, more so in the context of the envisaged new constitution which will, for the first time, explicitly guarantee media freedom and access to information.”

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