HARARE - A freelance journalist for The New York Times went on trial Wednesday in Zimbabwe, accused of helping two of the newspaper's reporters enter the country illegally. Critics say the charges are another example of the government's attempts to control the media.
At the commencement of Jeffrey Moyo's trial Wednesday, Doug Coltart, a lawyer with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, voiced optimism his client would be found not guilty.
Coltart spoke to VOA from the city of Bulawayo, where the trial is taking place.
"The state has now called about three witnesses. The case against Jeff is a weak one and it is not just us who are saying that. The state themselves have said in papers filed before the High Court in bail appeal that the state case is on very shaky ground. The evidence against Jeff is incredibly weak. Essentially there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. We will see how the court proceedings play out."
Moyo was arrested last year, together with a Zimbabwe Media Commission official, Thabang Manhika, for allegedly processing fake accreditations for two South Africa-based New York Times journalists who entered Zimbabwe and were later deported. Moyo and Manhika are being tried separately.
Zimbabwe's government has dismissed accusations it disregards media rights and freedom. It says Moyo and Manhika broke immigration laws.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is urging prosecutors to withdraw the charges against Moyo. Angela Quintal, its Africa program coordinator, said this week on Twitter that failure to do so would reinforce what she called "perceptions that prosecutors are acting in bad faith" and using Moyo as an example to censor and intimidate Zimbabwe's press.
Tabani Moyo, director of Media Institute of Southern Africa, is seen in Harare, June 16, 2021. (Columbus Mavhunga/VOA)
Tabani Moyo of the Media Institute of Southern Africa - who is no relation to Jeffrey Moyo - has been critical of Moyo and Manhika's arrest.
"There must be a fair trial on the matter and fairness of our justice system," said Moyo.
The New York Times quoted Executive Editor Dean Baquet as saying, "We are deeply troubled by the prosecution of Jeffrey Moyo, which appears designed to chill press freedom in Zimbabwe. Jeffrey is a widely respected journalist with many years of reporting experience in Zimbabwe."
Earlier this week, Luke Malaba, Zimbabwe's chief justice, told journalists that all cases brought before the courts will be treated fairly.
"Efficiency entails performance at the highest level possible using available resources. It is a legal requirement that is imposed on the courts. Section 164 of the Constitution requires the courts, in addition to being independent and impartial, to apply the law expeditiously without fear, favor or prejudice," said Malaba.
Manhika's trial is expected to start on Friday. Manhika and Moyo face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.