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Zimbabwe Media Trial Criticized - 2004-09-21

A former judge of South Africa's highest court has criticized the trial of four directors of Zimbabwe's banned Daily News newspaper, which ended Monday with their acquittal for lack of evidence. The former Constitutional Court Judge was asked to observe their trial by the International Bar Association in London.

The International Bar Association's report says it was "objectionable" that the four directors of the company that owns The Daily News were even charged.

It says the circumstances surrounding the charges against the four was also objectionable.

The Association says the Zimbabwe police behaved disgracefully during the controversy over the publication license for The Daily News. Police closed the newspaper on government orders a year ago, and mostly ignored court orders to allow it to re-open.

The report says that the accused, who went on trial in July, were more victims than perpetrators of unlawful conduct.

They were charged with publishing The Daily News without a license.

The former South African judge who wrote the report, Johan Kriegler, says new media legislation in Zimbabwe followed the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1999, the first political party to threaten the 19-year one-party rule of Zanu PF.

He says the new law was "probably, principally aimed" at the The Daily News and its Sunday edition, which began publishing five years ago, and quickly outsold state-controlled newspapers.

The Daily News was the only non-government daily paper and was critical of President Robert Mugabe's administration.

The law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, requires that all journalists and publishers be licensed with the state-appointed Media and Information Commission, or face up to two years in prison.

Judge Kriegler records that the two newspapers at first did not apply for registration, instead launching an unsuccessful legal challenge, claiming that the media law violated freedom of speech, which is enshrined in the Zimbabwe constitution.

The judge said the trial of the newspaper executives reminded him of similar events during the apartheid years in South Africa, when many charges were "conceived in injustice."

Judge Kriegler writes that although the conduct of the trial appeared fair, this "semblance of justice," as he called it, was in fact not "justice itself."

The Daily News, which published its last edition nearly a year ago, is still waiting for a final decision from the Supreme Court on its legal status.