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US Journalist to Stand Trial in Zimbabwe - 2002-06-12

The United States says it deplores the trial in Zimbabwe, due to open Wednesday, of a U.S. journalist accused of publishing a false story under the country's tough new media laws. The State Department says the case against correspondent Andrew Meldrum is part of a campaign of "intimidation and harassment" of the press by the government of President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Meldrum, the Zimbabwe correspondent for the British newspaper "The Guardian" is the first to be put on trial for publishing falsehoods under new press laws enacted shortly after President Mugabe's controversial re-election in March.

The U.S. citizen, who has resided in Zimbabwe for more than twenty years, could face up to two years in prison or a fine of about $2,000 if convicted in a trial opening Wednesday.

Mr. Meldrum, and two Zimbabwean journalists due to be tried later, face charges stemming from a story carried in the independent Harare newspaper, the "Daily News," in April alleging the beheading of a woman opposition supporter by ruling-party militants.

The dead woman's husband, the source for the story, later was found to have fabricated the incident and the newspaper carried a retraction. But the government pressed charges under the new media law, claiming the story was part of a Western campaign to damage Mr. Mugabe's image.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher denounced the trial of Mr. Meldrum, which he said was part of a broad effort by the Mugabe government to silence a free press. "We deplore the use of new, Draconian laws to restrict freedom of the press in Zimbabwe. Intimidation and harassment of journalists have continued unabated since the March presidential election, which international observers have criticized as fundamentally flawed," said Mr. Boucher. "We strongly believe that the media must be free to report the news and express opinions. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are internationally recognized human rights. The United States condemns the government of Zimbabwe's continuing harassment of the free press and calls upon it to cease all such actions."

Mr. Boucher said Mr. Meldrum, who was free on bail in advance of the trial, has been in contact with the U.S. embassy in Harare and that U.S. diplomats planned to attend the court proceeding.

Mr. Boucher said the moves against political freedom in Zimbabwe, and economic troubles he said have been caused by them, are of continuing concern to the Bush administration.

He said the Zimbabwe situation was one of the issues covered in talks Tuesday between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whose government has been working on the matter with other Commonwealth member countries.