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Zimbabwe Frees Journalists Arrested in Media Law Protest

Police in Zimbabwe released the head of the national union of journalists Tuesday after detaining him overnight for organizing a public demonstration against a tough new media law. Tawona Hondora, the lawyer defending Basildon Peta, told reporters on Tuesday that police had dropped all charges.

About 80 journalists protested outside parliament against the Access to Information Law, which forces journalists to get a government license to work. Offenders face heavy fines and up to two years in jail.

Mr. Peta was detained under the Public Order and Safety Law, introduced two weeks ago, which says that organizers of demonstrations and public meetings have to give police at least four days notice.

Mr. Hondora said the police agreed that professional associations, such as the union of journalists, are exempt from the requirement. "It's a new law and it is possible that police do not yet understand it," said Mr. Hondora.

Three other journalists who were arrested during the protest outside parliament were released after four hours.

Outside observers have expressed concern about the harassment of journalists and a ban on foreign observers in the run up to presidential elections March 9-10.

The European Union has threatened targeted sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and senior advisers if campaigning and the elections themselves are not free and fair.

EU officials had set a deadline of Monday this week for the government to comply, but has since said sanctions will not be imposed because the Zimbabwe government has agreed to allow in more than 100 EU observers.

The first group is expected to arrive this week.