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Zimbabwe Court Strikes Down Controversial Media Law - 2003-05-07

Zimbabwe's highest court has struck down a key section of the country's controversial media law, saying it was unconstitutional. The ruling came in the case of two local journalists charged with publishing a falsehood.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act was crafted by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo because, he said, the privately owned press and journalists working for the foreign media were lying about Zimbabwe.

It was rushed through parliament last year shortly after President Robert Mugabe's disputed re-election.

The law was immediately challenged by local and foreign journalists, but those cases are still pending.

In the meantime, more than 60 media workers have been detained as police were emboldened by the law. Many were released without charge, and some were charged under security laws.

The Information law defines anyone who writes for publication as a journalist, and requires them to register with the government. It also requires all newspapers to pay large fees for permission to publish.

One other section of the law has already been struck down. That section made it a crime to pretend to be a journalist.

Now, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court has ruled that a part of the law with much broader implications was also unconstitutional.

Geoff Nyarota, former editor of Zimbabwe's only privately-owned daily newspaper, The Daily News, and one of his reporters, Lloyd Mudiwa, were charged with publishing a falsehood last year.

The case was referred to Zimbabwe's Supreme Court after the two men claimed that part of the law was unconstitutional. Zimbabwe's 1980 constitution contains a guarantee of "Freedom of Expression."

The government's lawyers acknowledged the problem, and on Wednesday, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausuku agreed. That section can no longer be used against journalists working in Zimbabwe.

The case involved a story published in The Daily News last year about a man in a remote rural area who claimed his wife had been beheaded by ruling party supporters. It turned out the man was lying. He has since disappeared, and some journalists believe he was used by the ruling party to set up the reporter and editor.

The Daily News immediately apologized for publishing a false report, but the two men were charged anyway. The Information Minister has made clear that he particularly dislikes the Daily News.

Although media groups have welcomed the court's decision, one group, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, says the whole law curtails press freedom and should be repealed.

One part of the law that is particularly worrying to journalists in Zimbabwe requires them to be accredited by the government, which has refused to grant credentials to most journalists outside of the state media. The reporters continue to work illegally, and if the government decides to charge them, they could face up to a year in jail.