/ 16 April 2008

Zim court clears US, UK journalists

A court in Zimbabwe on Wednesday acquitted a United States and a British journalist of covering the country’s March 29 elections without accreditation, saying the state had failed to prove the offence and ordered them to be released.

Magistrate Gloria Takundwa said the state’s evidence against New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak and Britain’s Stephen Bevan, a freelance journalist with the Sunday Telegraph, was ”inconsistent and unreliable” and that the two should be released from remand.

Takundwa also reprimanded police for the ”unlawful detention” of the two journalists after the Attorney General’s office had ordered their release.

Bearak and Bevan were arrested on April 3 during a police raid on a tourist lodge in Harare aimed at rooting out foreign journalists who were covering the elections without accreditation.

The Attorney General found no case against the pair but police initially refused to release them and brought new charges. The two spent four nights in jail before being released on bail with conditions.

Under Zimbabwe’s draconian media laws, working without official accreditation is an offence carrying penalties of up to two years in prison.

Only a handful of foreign journalists from ”friendly” countries were given permission to cover the polls.

Commenting on the judgement, the journalists’ lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said: ”At least the magistrate’s court, unlike the judges, still applies the law as it should be.”

”For this case and the other one [of two South African employees of a satellite broadcasting company also charged and later acquitted of working without accreditation], justice has prevailed.”

Bearak, who received medical treatment for a back injury sustained during a fall in jail, declined an interview request. Bevan said merely: ”I am very relieved.” — Sapa-dpa