The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on authorities in Zimbabwe to drop charges against journalists accused of insulting President Robert Mugabe by reporting that the nonagenarian had been rushed to Singapore for medical treatment.
Mugabe left Zimbabwe in the middle of the night last week for what his spokesman, George Charamba, later said was a scheduled medical check up.
The 93-year-old, who looked under the weather at his birthday party last month, returned to the capital Harare and left soon after for Ghana, where he attended that country’s 60th independence day celebrations on Monday.
Reports on social media from Ghana claim that Mugabe fell asleep during the ceremony, adding credence to reports that he is not well.
However, police in Zimbabwe have deemed such reports an insult to the President and have so far charged two journalist for the offence.
“Zimbabwean authorities should immediately drop all charges against NewsDay editor Wisdom Mdzungairi and reporter Richard Chidza, and should cease threatening journalists,” said the CPJ in a statement issued by its Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal.
The CPJ said Zimbabwe police initially asked Mdzungairi and Chidza to identify the sources of a March 2 article headlined, “Mugabe in fresh health scare”.
“When they refused, police arrested and charged the two with undermining or insulting the country’s President, their lawyer, Obey Shava, told CPJ. If convicted, the two face a maximum sentence of one year in prison,” said the CPJ.
“After hours of questioning and paperwork, police released the journalists into Shava’s custody on March 2 pending trial, the lawyer told CPJ.”
Quintal said “for too long” governments have used laws on sedition, libel, and insult to try to limit legitimate reporting.
“Zimbabwean authorities should immediately drop the charges against Wisdom Mdzungairi and Richard Chidza and should stop hiding behind bad laws designed to muzzle the press,” said Quintal, the former editor of the Mail & Guardian.
Zimbabwe’s constitution expressly protects journalists from being forced to expose their sources.
CPJ said Zimbabwean government spokesperson George Charamba did not respond to repeated phone calls and text messages requesting comment.