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"Bulawayo Chronicle" journalists charged with criminal defamation

(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is a 23 March 2009 letter to Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai:

Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai
Prime Minister
c/o Dr. Machivenyika Mapuranga
Zimbabwean Ambassador to the United States
1608 New Hampshire Ave.
Washington, DC 20009

cc: President Robert Mugabe, Finance Minister Mr. Tendai Biti

Dear Prime Minister:

We have learned with alarm and concern that the Editor of the Bulawayo Chronicle, Brezhnev Malaba, a reporter on his staff, Nduduzo Tshuma, and Zimpapers Bulawayo branch General Manager Sithembile Ncube, have been charged with criminal defamation and breaches of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act over a news article published last month that exposed allegations of corruption at the Grain Marketing Board (GMB).

The criminal defamation charge, according to reports in the Chronicle, relates to a reference in the story to an unidentified "senior police officer'' being "the protector'' of the GMB manager. The offences under the Criminal Law Act are under a section which deals with the publication of "falsehoods'' and Section 30 that deals with "bringing disaffection'' to the police.

Criminal defamation and criminal offences relating to the publication of "falsehoods'' or which result in "disaffection'' of the police are discredited in established democracies and have no place in a country such as Zimbabwe which strives to be counted as a democracy.

In any case, the report published by the Chronicle does not by any stretch fall under such highly questionable laws. Nor have the police initiated an investigation into the serious allegations of corruption contained in the story which quotes millers accusing GMB officials of diverting maize supplies to the black market while cheating hungry villagers by offering a few bags of grain in exchange for livestock.

It seems that in charging the newspaper's staff the police are taking "legal'' action against the newspaper to punish it for what has been published and to prevent more details of corruption allegations from being exposed.

Shortly after taking office, you committed your government to review unjust media laws which have stifled freedom of expression and the operation of a free media in Zimbabwe. We have also noted with approval the special emphasis your government's new (March 2009) Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme (STERP) has given to the essential need for media freedom and freedom of expression to be pursued in the country's recovery - listed in the introduction to the programme as a key priority, second only to the Constitution and constitution-making processes.

Our view is that the extra-judicial conduct of the Bulawayo police against the Chronicle's editor and staff clearly violates STERP in relation to the media. The conduct of the police is highly damaging to the new government in Zimbabwe - and to your efforts to find solutions to your country's ills.

We believe that unless the spurious charges against the editor and his staff are withdrawn immediately, people will question the new Zimbabwe government's dedication to its professed intentions as outlined in STERP. The bona fides of the new government are at stake.

We make this earnest appeal that your government institute an immediate inquiry into the conduct of the Bulawayo police against the Chronicle and a further probe into the allegations raised by the Chronicle story into the operations of the GMB, while immediately withdrawing the unfounded charges against the paper.

We are copying this letter to President Robert Mugabe because we believe that he, too, will recognise the dangers the actions of the Bulawayo police pose for the new government, particularly in view of his recent appeal to "friends of Zimbabwe'' to come to its aid. Actions like the police conduct against the Chronicle could well serve as justifications for continuation of sanctions against Zimbabwe by the European Union and the United States.

E. Markham Bench
Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee

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