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Zimbabwe May Further Restrict Press Freedom - 2003-10-16

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has signed into law amendments to the country's controversial press law, which many people expect to further restrict press freedom.

The amendments, approved during the weekend, include a clause that is expected to make it easier for the government to prosecute journalists accused of publishing falsehoods.

The Zimbabwe Supreme Court struck down the original clause on falsehoods, saying the law was too broad. The amendments specify that a journalist can be prosecuted only if he or she knew the information was false.

That restricts the government's ability to use the law against reporters, but experts say it also removes a basis for journalists to appeal convictions, and so could actually strengthen the law.

Harare lawyer Jacob Mafema said the changes are designed to ensure that the state gets a conviction. "The amendments are minor. The amendments were made to correct errors that had emanated in the act because it was hurriedly introduced in parliament," he said. "What it actually does is that it tightens the loose ends where there could have risen possibilities to challenge the act now it will become more difficult, it simply tightens the old act."

The penalty for publishing a falsehood is a fine and up to two years in prison.

President Mugabe signed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act into law after his controversial re-election in March 2002. Among other things, the act requires media organizations and journalists to register with a government-appointed commission. Since its enactment, scores of journalists have been arrested for a variety of offenses, but no one has been convicted.

The biggest casualty of the act is Zimbabwe's only independent daily, The Daily News. Its publisher refused to register under the new law and the newspaper was forced to close in September after the Supreme Court ruled that it was operating illegally and police confiscated some of its equipment.

The publishers of the newspaper later applied for registration, but the commission rejected the request. The Supreme Court has refused to hear a complaint from The Daily News about the constitutionality of the press law until it is registered. The registration issue is being considered by a lower court.