Journalist jailed in Zimbabwe 'may soon be freed'

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The Independent Online

Hopes were raised yesterday that a national newspaper reporter being held in prison in Zimbabwe would soon be freed.

Peta Thornycroft, of The Daily Telegraph, was arrested on Wednesday and led to believe she had been charged with "publishing false statements prejudicial to the state" under the widely condemned new Public Order Security Act.

But the newspaper today said she had been charged only with two lesser offences – possessing a car with an incorrect number plate and working illegally as a journalist.

The Daily Telegraph's Foreign Editor, David Blair, said: "We're quite encouraged by this development because the charges have nothing to do with the Public Order Security Act. Her lawyer is confident she will be free in a matter of days."

Working illegally as a journalist in Zimbabwe carries a prison term of two years under a controversial new media law brought in by President Robert Mugabe two weeks ago.

Ms Thornycroft does not have the necessary accreditation but the law gives journalists three months in which to apply for the licence. The car registration charge carries a small fine.

Mr Blair said: "If the journalism charge gets to court there's little doubt it will be thrown out straight away.

"There's always a danger in Zimbabwe of something unexpected happening but it's likely she will either be let out on Sunday, or more probably on Tuesday," he said.

"She is in reasonably good spirits. She is being treated quite decently and humanely and is being allowed unrestricted access to her lawyer.

"Her arrest is typical of the situation in Zimbabwe. People who are seen as a nuisance by the government are arrested, have various charges laid against them and then after four or five days are released. It's all part of the culture of harassment."

She was arrested in Chimanimani, on the border with Mozambique, and moved to the police headquarters in Mutare, 200 miles east of the capital, Harare.

Ms Thornycroft, 57, who had travelled to Chimanimani to investigate reports of widespread political violence and retribution against the opposition, denied the charges. "I didn't have a chance to file a word ... I had only been there three hours when I was arrested," she said.