Basildon Peta, The Independent's correspondent in Zimbabwe, is at the centre of a rather unedifying controversy. Mr Peta is one of six journalists recently described by President Robert Mugabe as a "terrorist". Nearly two weeks ago his house was ransacked by police. On Monday of last week he was arrested at Harare central police station. None of this is in dispute. All that is at issue is the number of hours Mr Peta was kept in custody.
In his account in The Independent of 6 February, Mr Peta described being kept overnight in a "tiny VIP cell" next to "a stinking blocked toilet". His version of events was challenged by the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which issued a statement on 8 February that Mr Peta had been held for only five hours, and not overnight. Mr Peta denied this, but he did admit he had left the police station in the middle of the night for several hours – a disclosure not vouchsafed in his original account. All the British broadsheets took up the story in a competitive spirit, implying Mr Peta had unduly elaborated his story.
The first edition of Tuesday's Times claimed Mr Peta had admitted the tale of his incarceration had been "fabricated", though in later editions this was changed to "exaggerated". Mr Peta strongly denied to me that he made either admission. He pointed to a statement issued by the Media Institute of Southern Africa on Monday evening which conceded that its earlier statement was incorrect and apparently accepted Mr Peta's word that he had been held for "about 15 hours".
But he admits, as he wrote in Wednesday's edition of The Independent, that he did leave his cell for several hours in the middle of the night. Detectives had agreed to accompany him to his home in search of medication he needed for an ulcer and he had not mentioned this nocturnal excursion, to protect the detectives.
Most journalists are inclined to over-egg their accounts of being shot at or imprisoned, and it may well be that Mr Peta is part of that tradition. But there is no doubt he was held for many hours, or that his house was ransacked.
The explanation for his not mentioning leaving prison in the middle of the night rings true to me.
This man is being persecuted by Mr Mugabe's thugs. The eagerness of rival newspapers, particularly The Times, to blacken his name seems petty and cruel.
This article first appeared in 'The Spectator'Reuse content