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3 Journalists in Court, Charged Under Zimbabwe Media Law - 2002-05-07

Three journalists - two Zimbabweans and an American - appeared in Harare's magistrate's court Tuesday, accused of disobeying Zimbabwe's recently-approved media law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The three were accused of publishing a false story about a man who claimed his girlfriend had been beheaded by ruling Zanu-PF supporters.

The media act was signed into law a week after presidential elections in March, and since then, eight journalists and a newspaper driver have been arrested and charged with violating it.

On Tuesday, the first to appear in court were reporters from Zimbabwe's beleaguered privately-owned newspaper, The Daily News, Lloyd Mudiwa and Collin Chiwanza. The third was Andrew Meldrum, foreign correspondent for the British daily, The Guardian.

The magistrate decided there was insufficient evidence to bring Mr. Chiwanza to trial, and he has been discharged, but he ordered the other two to appear at another hearing on May 28.

Earlier this week another journalist, Pius Wakatama, was charged by police in connection with the beheading story.

If any of the journalists are found guilty of publishing incorrect information, they could face up to two years in prison.

The Daily News suggested in its Tuesday edition that the information about the alleged beheading by Zanu-PF members may have been deliberately planted by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which then alerted the media to the story.

The non-governmental Media Monitoring Project has criticized the publications for their lack of diligence in carrying the beheading story. The group said although journalists in Zimbabwe work under conditions that make accurate information collection difficult, this does not excuse them.

The Daily News, which is Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, has found the grave of the dead woman and says she died of natural causes. Her boyfriend, who went to the MDC and said she had been beheaded in front of her children, has disappeared.

The media in Zimbabwe, both domestic and foreign, operates under some of the toughest media and security laws in the world.