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Press Groups Back Nieman Fellow in Fighting Charges

By Tess Mullen, Contributing Writer

Two international press associations asked Zimbabwe’s president to drop charges against a Nieman Fellow in a letter sent this week, criticizing the country’s media law as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum wrote the letter in support of Geoff Nyarota, a newspaper editor who received a last-minute fellowship at the University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism at the beginning of the semester.

“He is an extraordinary man, and he can use all the help he can get,” Larry Kilman, the Director of Communications for the World Associations of Newspapers, said. “He is the best Zimbabwe has to offer, and it is a shame that he is being persecuted this way, as a journalist and as a man.”

Nyarota, who founded his independant newspaper, The Daily News, in 1999, was issued an arrest warrant on Feb. 28 by a Harare Court after he failed to appear to face charges of “abusing journalistic privileges and publishing falsehoods.”

“We respectfully remind you that the media law under which Mr. Nyarota has been charged contravenes the basic principles of freedom of expression, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the letter to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe states.

While Nyarota said he believes that the letter will show the world is aware of its actions, he said that he doubts it will prompt government changes.

“The government of Zimbabwe usually ignores with arrogant disdain the appeals or the intervention of the international media organizations on behalf of the press of Zimbabwe,” Nyarota wrote in an e-mail message.

However, the international community should not be discouraged, Nyarota said, but rather should continue to lobby against “Zimbabwe’s draconian press laws.”

The charges against Nyarota stem from the publication of an article in The Daily News which detailed the alleged decapitation of a woman by pro-government militias in the presence of her daughters.

The Daily News retracted the story after learning it was false.

According to Nyarota, the case against him is “extremely spurious.”

“Notwithstanding that there is evidence the false story in question was planted on The Daily News by state security agency,” Nyarota said. “The newspaper did what newspapers all over the democratic world do in such circumstances.”

Under Zimbabwean law, an editor may be subject to a steep fine or two years in jail even after he retracts an incorrect story.

“To me, this warrant signals the latest in a series of acts of harassment of independent journalists in Zimbabwe,” he said.

This latest warrant is not Nyarota’s first.

The Daily News was also bombed on two occasions, he has been arrested six times and received two death threats.

“The issuing of a warrant of arrest across the Atlantic is, therefore, less terrifying an experience than being dragged from bed at complete strangers,” Nyarota said.

When Nyarota started The Daily News in 1999, it was the only non-government controlled paper in Zimbabwe.

Two years after The Daily News started, it was the country’s most widely-read paper, boasting a circulation of 100,000.

Nyarota left Zimbabwe in December after The Daily News’ new chief executive—whom Mr. Nyarota believes is connected to the government—dismissed him.

Since arriving at Harvard, Nyarota said he has been adjusting to a “rigorous academic regime” after being a journalist for 25 years.

Nyarota said meeting journalists from around the nation and the world has been a highlight of his experience in Cambridge.

“Learning how differently [other journalists] conduct their journalism has been an education in itself,” he said.

Though his return to Zimbabwe depends on “demonstrable improvement” in the country’s political situation, Nyarota said he hopes to return home someday.

“I believe there will still be a role for me to play in the media,” he said. “I am a very enterprising person.”

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