Reporters Without Borders voiced relief today that the Zimbabwean authorities have abandoned the prosecution of 44 Daily News journalists who were to have been tried by a Harare court on 12 October on charges of working without an accreditation issued by the Media and Information Commission, the government-controlled body set up to regulate the news media.
The 44 journalist and their defence lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, went to the court on 12 October but none of the court officials including the judge in charge of the case knew about the hearing.
The head of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), which publishes the Daily News, said the attorney-general’s office evidently decided it could not continue the prosecution after Kelvin Jakachira, the first Daily News journalist to tried on these charges, was acquitted on 31 August. “The government is too embarrassed to proceed with the prosecution so they decided to let the case slowly die a natural death,” the head of the ANZ said.
02.09.2005 Jakachira acquitted in first victory over one of the world’s harshest press laws
Reporters Without Borders today hailed the 31 August acquittal of Daily News journalist Kelvin Jakachira on charges of violating the Zimbabwean government’s press law by working without being accredited with the Media and Information Commission (MIC), which is under the government’s close control.
There had been concern that Jakachira’s conviction would have set off a wave of arrests of other Daily News journalists on similar charges.
Judge Priscilla Chigumira based her verdict on Section 82 of the press law - the so-called Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) - according to which a journalist may continue working in the interval between filing a request for accreditation and receiving the MIC’s answer. The MIC never responded to Jakachira’s request.
"This was a fair verdict and constitutes a victory over one of the world’s most draconian press laws," Reporters Without Borders said. "We congratulate the entire Daily News staff, especially Kelvin Jakachira and the newspaper’s 44 other journalists, who were all awaiting this ruling."
The organisation added: "However, this success is just one grain of sand in Robert Mugabe’s vast repressive machinery and we will remain vigilant alongside the Daily News and all of Zimbabwe’s independent journalists."
30.08.2005 - Concern that verdict in Daily News journalist’s trial could set grim precedent
Reporters Without Borders voiced "great concern" today about the verdict and sentencing expected tomorrow in the trial of Daily News reporter Kelvin Jakachira, who faces up to two years in prison for working without government accreditation. His conviction could open the way for the arrest and trial of the banned newspaper’s 44 other journalists.
"President Robert Mugabe’s government clearly likes to crush all those it dislikes but the Zimbabwean judicial system still has a chance to salvage its honour by reaffirming its independence and fairness and by rendering justice to the journalists of the Daily News," the press freedom organisation said.
"There is no alternative to Jakachira’s acquittal," Reporters Without Borders added. "If he is not acquitted, those trying to negotiate a solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis - above all the International Monetary Fund and the South African government - will just have to include the case of these journalists in their list of conditions."
Jakachira is being tried for working without accreditation from the governmental Media and Information Commission (MIC). The 44 other journalists employed by the Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday, have been charged with the same offence and are due to be tried together in Harare on 12 October.
A press law known as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) requires journalists to be registered with the MIC, a media regulatory body that is closely controlled by the government. Since the end of last year, the penalty for offenders has been two years in prison.
Jakachira said during his trial that he submitted an accreditation request to the MIC but never got a reply. Article 82 of the AIPPA says a journalist may continue working in the interval between the submission of an accreditation request and the MIC’s decision. Jakachira’s lawyers cited this article as grounds for dismissing the charges but the judge, Priscilla Chigumira, ruled that the trial should go ahead.
Jakachira is the first journalist to be tried for violating the AIPPA. The verdict and sentence which Judge Chigumira hands down tomorrow will serve as a pointer to what the government intends to do with the rest of the Daily News’ staff.
"This case is very important and many of us are having sleepless nights over it," one of the newspaper’s journalists told Reporters Without Borders. "If Kelvin Jakachira is convicted, we think the government will have all the other journalists arrested and prosecuted on the same charges in one fell swoop."
Gripped by a political and economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions, Zimbabwe is on the verge of bankruptcy and the government has approached several countries including South Africa for emergency financial aid. President Thabo M’Beki’s government has agreed to consider the request but has set several political conditions including negotiations with the opposition. The IMF has meanwhile begun 11th hour talks with Harare about its debts. If they fail, Zimbabwe could be soon be suspended from the Fund.