Acquitted journalist ordered to leave Zimbabwe


ZIMBABWE: Zimbabwe yesterday ordered Andrew Meldrum, a Harare-based foreign correspondent acquitted of breaking President Robert Mugabe's restrictive new media laws, to leave the country within 24 hours.

Mr Meldrum (50), who is the Zimbabwe correspondent of The Guardian of London and who has also reported regularly for The Irish Times, filed an appeal against the expulsion, his lawyer, Ms Beatrice Mtetwa, said.

In the latest twist of a drama which could have seen Mr Meldrum face a jail term of up to two years or a fine had he been found guilty, the Information Minister, Mr Jonathan Moyo, said: "Meldrum is in violation of the conditions of his residence permit." But Mr Moyo did not explain how.

Mr Meldrum, who was born in Ohio but has been living in Zimbabwe for 22 years, said: "This is consistent with the government's efforts in trying to stop me doing what I am supposed to do. The immigration documents revoking my residence permit were processed on 3rd and 5th of July."

The editor of The Guardian, Mr Alan Rusbridger, said: "This is an extremely serious blow to the operation of a free and independent media in Zimbabwe."

Mr Meldrum was arrested in May and charged under the country's recently introduced Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act for publishing falsehoods and abusing journalistic privilege. The charges related to a story first published in the local Daily News, alleging that supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party beheaded an opposition supporter in front of her children.

Mr Meldrum reported the story for The Guardian, but when it turned out to be false, both the Daily News and The Guardian published retractions.

In acquitting him yesterday, the magistrate, Mr Godfrey Macheyo, said: "At the end of the day all he has to show is that he tried to verify the story if there was need ... He acted like any other reasonable journalist in these circumstances."

Foreign journalists in southern Africa welcomed the acquittal, but condemned the expulsion order.

"The Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa strongly condemns the expulsion order," its chairwoman, Ms Christina Stucky, said in a statement.

She added the association remained "... opposed to the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act under which Meldrum and Zimbabwean journalists have been charged."

Mr Meldrum's trial took place against a worsening political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

More than six million people in Zimbabwe, once the region's breadbasket, need food aid after drought and the invasion of white-owned farms since February 2000 by militants loyal to Mr Mugabe slashed maize output.

Mr Mugabe left for Cuba on Sunday night for an official visit that will include talks with President Fidel Castro. - (Reuters/AFP)