Zimbabwe clamps down on press as newspaper claims police aided mob

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwean police arrested four journalists yesterday from Zimbabwe's only privately owned daily newspaper, The Daily News, over a report that which alleged that police vehicles had been used during a wave of looting of white farms in north-eastern Zimbabwe.

The editor-in-chief, Geoff Nyarota, assistant editor Bill Saidi, news editor John Gambanga and reporter Sam Munyavi are expected to appear in court today on charges of "publishing false news".

Mr Nyarota was taken from his home by police at about 1am yesterday morning. The three others were picked up yesterday afternoon.

A police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, said Mr Nyarota would be charged under the Law and Order Maintenance Act. The draconian law, some of whose sections Zimbabwe's Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional and undemocratic, makes it an imprisonable offence to publish information that the state may deem "likely to cause public alarm and despondency".

However, the journalists' lawyer said last night that it appeared the police would not be able to use the controversial law, as it had been struck down by the Supreme Court last year as unconstitutional. The police were said to be looking at the possibility of a criminal defamation charge.

On Tuesday The Daily News alleged that police vehicles had been used by pro-government mobs to move loot from white-owned farms in the Mhangura and Chinhoyi districts, about 120km north-west of Harare.

The paper said the police action was part of the "well- orchestrated acts of lawlessness" on the farms. Gangs of government supporters last week unleashed a fresh wave of violence against white farmers in Mhangura and Chinhoyi, ostensibly in retaliation to the alleged assault of land occupiers by 23 farmers, who are still in police custody.

The looters made off with cattle, expensive farm equipment and household property worth millions of dollars and forced more than 90 white families to flee their farms.

Farmers and many other Zimbabweans criticised the police for their lacklustre response to the lawlessness in Chinhoyi. A Commercial Farmers Union spokeswoman, Jane Williams, said the police failed to act on all warnings of violence. "They only responded long after the looting had taken place. They never acted on reports of looting that they were given beforehand," she said.

But Mr Bvudzijena said the Daily News story had falsely implied that the police had participated in the looting and the report was designed to bring the force into disrepute.

Farmers said yesterday that the looting spree appeared to have stopped. Paul Hopcroft, a farmer in the Banket area near Chinhoyi, said: "It is a lot quieter today. There does not seem to be any more looting going on. But the families that fled their farms won't go back until all the looters have been locked up," he added.

Journalists' unions yesterday criticised the police action, saying it was high-handed and designed to intimidate the press. Abel Mutsakani, the president of the Independent Journalist Association, said: "The very basis of the police action against Nyarota, [the Law and Order Maintenance Act], is a discredited and oppressive law that should have no place in any democracy.

"And what really is the purpose of the police pouncing on a defenceless journalist like Nyarota in the middle of the night if this is not meant to intimidate and strike fear into all who dare question the government's actions."

A spokesman for the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists said the arrests exemplified the government's desperate attempts to silence the independent media.

The Daily News has suffered for its criticism of the Mugabe government. In January, its printing presses were bombed after the government called the paper an opposition mouthpiece. The newspaper has continued to publish smaller daily editions with a reduced print run by using private printers.

The Zimbabwean government has also expelled two foreign journalists and banned the BBC from reporting inside the country.