By: Angus Shaw, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A leading journalist who was the first prominent government critic arrested under Zimbabwe’s new security laws was released Tuesday after the state withdrew charges against him, his lawyer said.
Basildon Peta, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, had been charged with organizing an illegal demonstration outside the Harare parliament Jan. 30 to protest proposed strict media curbs being debated by lawmakers.
Peta, 30, was held overnight at Harare’s main police station. He is also an editor at the weekly Financial Gazette in Zimbabwe and a correspondent for Britain’s daily Independent newspaper.
Laws placing stricter limits on public meetings and criticism of President Robert Mugabe went into effect on Jan. 18. Other laws restricting the media — which Peta was protesting — were approved by parliament Thursday and must still be signed into law by Mugabe.
The laws have generated intense international criticism against Mugabe, who is fighting for his political survival ahead of March 9-10 presidential elections. He has ruled Zimbabwe for 22 years.
Peta’s lawyer, Tawanda Hondora, said the security laws do not require professional bodies such as the journalists’ union to seek police clearance to hold demonstrations.
The attorney general’s office decided to drop charges without Peta appearing in court. “It is a new law and it could be the police misunderstood it,” Hondora said.
Three other journalists arrested during last week’s demonstration were released after four hours without being charged, also on the grounds they were exempt from prosecution.
About 70 journalists took part in the protest, some wearing gags around their mouths. The arrests were seen as part of continuing efforts to harass independent journalists.
Peta has been repeatedly singled out by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo as being biased against the government.
Christine Samudzimi, Peta’s sister, said her brother voluntarily reported to the Harare police station for questioning Monday after police searched his home on Saturday night.
The Public Order and Security Act, enforced Jan. 18, requires police authorization for public meetings and outlaws criticism of Mugabe. Violators can be imprisoned or a fined.
The proposed media laws would make it illegal for journalists to operate without government accreditation. It creates a state-appointed commission that can withdraw licenses, confiscate equipment, and jail journalists for up to two years
“It is sad we find ourselves back in the dark old days” of state violation of civil rights, Hondora said.
In political violence since March 2000 blamed on ruling party militants, independent journalists have been threatened and assaulted and about a dozen have been arrested. None has been convicted.