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Charges against journalist Gift Phiri dropped

(WiPC/IFEX) - The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN welcomes the acquittal of The Zimbabwean reporter Gift Phiri, who had been on trial since April 2007 for working as a journalist without official accreditation and "publishing false news". However concerns remain for the safety of Phiri and a number of other print journalists in Zimbabwe following the recent circulation of a purported government "black list".

Gift Phiri, Harare correspondent of the independent exile newspaper "The Zimbabwean", was arrested on 1 April and detained for four days during which time he was allegedly tortured and access by lawyers and doctors was restricted. Phiri was initially accused of a number of offences, including involvement in bombings and "publishing falsehoods" in connection with his reporting on government activities. On 5 April he was charged with working as a journalist without official accreditation and publishing false news under sections 79 (1) and 80 (1) (b) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). On his release on bail, Phiri was hospitalised for five days to receive treatment for injuries sustained from beatings received in police custody. It was alleged that he had been tortured and forced to sign a confession.

According to PEN's sources, Phiri has now been acquitted. The charge of publishing false news was dropped in July trial proceeded only on the basis that Phiri practiced journalism without official accreditation. The latter charge was then dropped on 30 August. If convicted, the journalist could have faced a jail sentence of up to two years. The investigation into the torture allegations was apparently not carried out.

Concerns continue for the safety of Phiri and a number of other print journalists in Zimbabwe, whose names were included in a purported government "blacklist" apparently leaked to the independent Zimbabwean press at the end of September. The document, dated June 2007, listed some 15 journalists accused of "working hand in hand with hostile anti-Zimbabwean forces" and to be subject to strict surveillance and other unspecified measures in the run-up to Zimbabwe's presidential and parliamentary elections next year. In addition to Phiri, the list reportedly included: Wilf Mbanga, editor of "The Zimbabwean"; Abel Mutsakani, editor of the website http://www.ZimOnline.com; Vincent Kahiya, Dumisani Muleya and Itai Mushekwe, publisher, editor and journalist respectively of the daily "Zimbabwe Independent"; Bill Saidi and Caiphas Chimhete, deputy editor and journalist respectively of the daily "The Standard"; and "Njabulo Ncube", Kumbirai Mafunda and Clemence Manyukwe,political editor and journalists of the daily "Financial Gazette".

The government has denied the authenticity of the document. However three of the journalists listed have been attacked in 2007: Phiri, Mutsakani and Saidi. This new threat mirrors another against Phiri in March, a few days before his arrest and detention. A list of 29 individuals allegedly targeted for execution by the Zimbabwe Intelligence Corps and the "Zanu PF Security hit squad" was sent to "The Zimbabwean"'s London office. The list included Phiri and the UK-based editor of "The Zimbabwean", Wilf Mbanga, whose names were circled. Mutsakani was shot and seriously injured by three gunmen in South Africa in July, while Saidi received a bullet in an envelope in February.

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