'Independent' reporter forced to flee Zimbabwe after smear campaign

By Leonard Doyle,Foreign Editor
Friday 15 February 2002 01:00

The Zimbabwe correspondent for The Independent, Basildon Peta, fled the country fearing for his life last night, after an unprecedented campaign of vilification in the state-controlled media. The attacks reached a peak when Zimbabwe's national television news led its evening bulletin with a smear based on an erroneous front-page article in The Times in London on Tuesday.

That inaccurate allegation, dropped in subsequent editions, claimed Mr Peta admitted to the paper that he fabricated a report about his arrest and incarceration last week. The Times' account ­ seized on by Zimbabwe's state print media ­ led to extraordinary claims on television that Mr Peta's article caused a drop in the value of the South African rand and was responsible for a collapse in tourism bookings into Zimbabwe. The credibility of the Harare newspaper for which he worked as an award-winning journalist was also attacked. As a result, Mr Peta quit the Financial Gazette, an independent newspaper critical of President Robert Mugabe, taking an evening flight out of the country to join his wife and two children already in exile.

Mr Peta, who is secretary general of Zimbabwe's Union of Journalists, has been threatened with death. Last year, his name appeared at the top of a security service hit list of enemies of the state to be eliminated or put out of the way before the national elections in three weeks. The editor-in-chief of the Financial Gazette, Francis Mdlongwa, described Mr Peta last night as "an outstanding journalist". He said he had every confidence in him. "I will welcome [him] back when the dust has settled," he said. He added: "I advised [Mr Peta] to take the first flight out. There are too many forces that want to hurt him. The important thing is that he was arrested, but now our detractors are seizing on small aspects of the story to make mischief." Mr Mdlongwa said the erroneous account in The Times made the situation far worse.

In The Independent article, Mr Peta left out the fact that detectives accompanied him home in the night to pick up medication for his ulcers. He promised not to reveal this act of kindness to protect the detectives who had been ordered to ill-treat him. He returned to the police station at 3am and later that day all charges against him were dropped.

Mr Peta's troubles began when reporters in Johannesburg and London picked up on a whispering campaign by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa). They accepted Misa's statement that he had spent less than five hours in custody, rather than the 15 hours he actually spent in the foul-smelling police cell.

Although reports in the British press changed when Misa substantially corrected its original allegations, Harare clung to the Times first-edition account, written from Johannesburg and in London.

Mr Peta said: "There has been a big attempt to try to destroy me completely. I will go back as soon as I feel it is safe, possibly before the election."

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