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Zimbabwe Journalists Take Challenge of Media Laws to Supreme Court - 2002-11-21

Independent domestic journalists challenged Zimbabwe's new media laws in the Supreme Court Thursday, saying they are a violation of constitutional rights.

Lawyer Sternford Moyo told a full bench of five judges, sitting as a constitutional court, that the government appointed Media Commission is not an independent body.

The Media Commission, staffed by ruling Zanu PF party supporters, can deny journalists accreditation and withdraw their licenses for alleged infringements of the new law.

Mr. Moyo said licensing journalists is an infringement of people's rights to free speech. He said that cannot be justified in any democratic society and that it creates a massive and chilling effect on people's ability to exercise their fundamental rights, enshrined in Zimbabwe's constitution.

The lawyer, who is president of Zimbabwe's Law Society, said the case before the court has the potential to reverse the gains of Zimbabwe's independence. Mr. Moyo said the state should not be in a position where it is able to use public funds to restrict freedom of speech.

Journalists face up to two years in jail and heavy fines for publishing what the government-appointed media commission deems false information, and so-called abuse of journalistic privilege.

Thursday was also the deadline for local and foreign journalists to apply for accreditation at the media commission. All media organizations, including advertising agencies and public relations companies, are required to apply for licenses. By January 1 next year, any journalist or media organization operating without accreditation or a license will be illegal and will face a host of charges and confiscation of their equipment.

The Zimbabwe Government has blamed foreign media and the privately-owned domestic press for many of Zimbabwe's economic problems, including the collapse of tourism.

At least 12 journalists were arrested this year, and several are still awaiting trial.

The challenge to the new press law is being argued before Zimbabwe's Supreme Court. The government has appointed several new judges during the last year, and international jurists and legal analysts in Zimbabwe have questioned its independence.