Zimbabwe cricket tour nears collapse after ban on media

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The Independent Online

England's planned cricket tour of Zimbabwe appeared to be on the brink of cancellation last night after a decision by Robert Mugabe's government to refuse entry to some British journalists provoked widespread condemnation.

England's planned cricket tour of Zimbabwe appeared to be on the brink of cancellation last night after a decision by Robert Mugabe's government to refuse entry to some British journalists provoked widespread condemnation.

The England team had been due to fly to the Zimbabwean capital Harare but decided at the last minute to remain in Johannesburg, in a clear sign of the players' increasing opposition to the trip.

The squad were discussing withdrawing from the tour in a meeting with their union leaders at Johannesburg airport when David Morgan from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) telephoned from Zimbabwe to tell them to remain in South Africa, where they are due to start a test series next month. As the ECB sought finally to extricate itself from the tour, the Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane summoned the Zimbabwean charge d'affaires in London to the Foreign Office to express Britain's "deep concern" over the media ban.

However the Government, which could be liable to pay a multimillion-pound compensation bill if it ordered the players home, said it had no legal powers to do so and any such action would be tantamount to "state-controlled sport".

On Tuesday the Zimbabwean cricket authorities told The Sun, The Times, Daily Mirror, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times and News of the World as well as representatives from BBC radio and television that they had been refused accreditation. They were banned under a draconian media law that prevents the foreign media from reporting from Zimbabwe unless granted special permission by the government.

Mr MacShane said: "This is a reprehensible step. The UK has long been an advocate of media freedom in Zimbabwe. This applies as much to sports journalism as any other kind."

The impasse comes as players, their union, British diplomats and the game's leaders sought a way out of a tour that England have been obliged to play under the rules of the International Cricket Council (ICC). The game's international ruling body has insisted that the team, led by captain Michael Vaughan, honour the tour which takes them to Harare and Bulawayo, in return for Zimbabwe's visit to the UK last year and in accordance with the ICC's Future Tours Programme.

Having failed to opt out of the tour on the grounds of a legitimate safety or security threat, the ECB yesterday prepared to pull out if the ICC ruled that the partial media ban provided sufficient grounds.

The ICC rulebook appears to offer no such way out and the game's world governing body said only that it had "huge sympathy" for the position the England team were in.

The ICC president, Eshan Mani, said there were "serious concerns" about media accreditation but any approval for abandoning the tour would have to be taken in consultation with its executive board, which comprises members of the main cricketing nations.

The tour of Zimbabwe, which is sandwiched between warm-up matches in Namibia and a test series in South Africa starting 6 December, has been opposed since its inception by the British Government, which has led opposition in the Commonwealth to Mr Mugabe's government. Moral objections to the tour caused the leading players Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff to declare themselves unavailable.

England's Zimbabwe-born coach Duncan Fletcher said: "From my point of view I think it's very wrong that the press are not allowed to go into Zimbabwe. The press are part of our tour set-up and it's wrong these people have been refused entry into the country."

Ozias Bvute, the acting managing director of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, said there was "nothing else we could do" on accreditation.

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