Media watchdog issues warning after reporter flees Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe's independent media monitoring watchdog warned yesterday of the dangers of newspapers playing into the hands of Robert Mugabe's state-controlled press after The Independent's Harare correspondent, Basildon Peta, had to flee the country fearing for his life.

The warning from the respected Media Monitoring Project came as riot police used draconian new security laws to crack down violently on a peaceful protest in Harare. The government was also on a collision course with the European Union after threatening to expel the Swedish head of the EU's monitoring mission for presidential elections next month. Harassment of international media representatives and the rejection of the chief monitor, who has been told he is only a "tourist", may trigger EU sanctions at a ministerial meeting on Monday.

The Media Monitoring Project said gloating in relentless state media attacks about "alleged exaggeration" by Mr Peta of his imprisonment was misplaced. "The magnitude of their own fabricated stories and persistently systematic manipulation of the news is an intolerable abuse."

Such behaviour by President Mugabe's state-controlled print, radio and television media "poses a far greater threat to the nation's access to information than the relatively trivial offences committed by the privately owned press". It called on "all media organisations to desist ... from publishing or broadcasting unsub- stantiated allegations".

Zimbabwe television led bulletins with an attack based on an erroneous front-page article in The Times in London, which said Mr Peta, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, had admitted he fabricated an account of his stay in police custody. At issue was Mr Peta's account in The Independent, which omitted saying that he was allowed to pick up medicine in the middle of the night. He was denounced as a liar as a result.

The state media this week also seized on an Australian "documentary" that purported to show the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai arranging to have Mr Mugabe "eliminated" in an assassination.