Journalists charged for Mugabe 'blasphemy'

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The Independent Online

Robert Mugabe's regime has charged three journalists with "criminal defamation" over a report that the Zimbabwean President commandeered an Air Zimbabwe plane for a holiday in Asia this week.

The editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, Iden Wetherell, and two of his journalists, Vincent Kahiya, the news editor, and Dumisani Muleya, chief reporter, were arrested on Saturday shortly after Mr Mugabe's spokesman, Jonathan Moyo, dismissed their story as being "criminally false" and inspired by the British Government. Mr Moyo described the report as "blasphemous" and said those responsible for it faced up to two years' imprisonment.

Moyo, who is also acting transport minister, denied Mugabe personally phoned the debt-ridden Air Zimbabwe to demand the plane, as implied in the report, but he did not deny the aircraft was diverted to Malaysia and Indonesia for more than five days.

The story, headlined "Mugabe grabs plane for Far East holiday", said passengers were stranded after the 80-year-old Zimbabwean dictator commandeered an Air Zimbabwe Boeing 767-200 to "ferry him around the Far East". The plane flies the Harare-London route and is Air Zimbabwe's only major source of income.

Mr Wetherell told police before he was thrown into jail that he was standing by his story and had published it in the public interest.

Linda Cook, the journalists' lawyer, dismissed the charges against the three journalists as "most spurious". She said the police were not contesting that "the plane was used by the President, in the manner that it was used as outlined in the report", which made the charges completely absurd. The three journalists may appear in court today.

Mr Mugabe has launched a crackdown against the independent media in Zimbabwe.

His wife, Grace, regularly commandeers Air Zimbabwe planes for shopping trips.