Zimbabwean journalist to appeal jail term over unregistered newspaper

New York, June 30, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities to immediately release Zimbabwean journalist Patrick Chitongo who, according to reports, was sentenced to one year in prison on June 23 for publishing an unregistered newspaper.

Freelance journalist Chitongo was accused of publishing The Southern Mirror without registering it with the Zimbabwe Media Commission, according to news reports. In a press release from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), prosecutors argued that this was a violation of Section 72 (1) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). In the same press release, ZLHR said that Chitongo plans to appeal.

“The Zimbabwean government has used the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to hamstring and silence the country’s media for more than a decade,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. “Zimbabwe has taken a lead in the region in decriminalizing defamation, it’s time this law was repealed too.”

Chitongo was charged alongside three others, who were acquitted once the court established that they were students who had been on work placements, according to news reports. The co-defendants were not named in reports.

According to the ZLHR, Martin Mureri, one of its members who acted as Chitongo’s laywer, argued in court that the journalist had not violated the Access to Information act because he had printed only a “dummy copy” of the paper, which is a required component of the registration process. The press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa reported that three issues had been printed.

CPJ could not verify if the creation of a “dummy” paper is a requirement of the registration process.

“It’s a sad day for press freedom when people are jailed for disseminating information” Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, told AFP.

The Access to Information act was enacted in 2002 by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front party. The laws have been condemned by the Zimbabwe branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, as well as by former Zimbabwean Attorney General Andrew Chigovera. In a 2003 Human Rights Brief, published by the American University Washington College of Law, scholar Jamal Jafari said that the act was being used to detain journalists who were critical of the government, and that it was “stifling public debate.”