- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2002

HARARE, Zimbabwe An American journalist charged under Zimbabwe's draconian new media laws with publishing a false story was found innocent Monday but was immediately ordered to leave the country.

Judge Godfrey Macheyo acquitted Andrew Meldrum, backing his argument that he took all reasonable steps to verify his story on the killing of an opposition supporter by ruling-party militants. The report was later proved to be false.

Mr. Meldrum, a 50-year-old correspondent for Britain's Guardian newspaper, could have been jailed for up to two years.

"I feel I am vindicated. I am delighted," he said.

Immediately after the verdict, immigration officials ordered Mr. Meldrum, a permanent resident who has lived in Zimbabwe since 1981, to leave the country within 24 hours. Immigration laws empower the government to revoke permanent-resident status at will.

Mr. Meldrum's lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said she was seeking an urgent hearing on the deportation before a High Court judge.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's white farmers asked yesterday for an audience with President Robert Mugabe to discuss his plans to seize 95 percent of white-owned commercial farmland next month.

"It is still not too late," Commercial Farmers Union President Colin Cloete said.

However, state radio reported yesterday that Mr. Mugabe had flown to Cuba for a five-day visit.

Mr. Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian government has cracked down on the independent press, the judiciary, opposition officials and human rights workers during two years of political and economic chaos in the southern African country.

Guardian officials said they "utterly deplore" the decision to deport Mr. Meldrum, adding that the deportation order was signed last week, "suggesting there was never any intention of a just result."

"This is an extremely serious blow to the operation of a free and independent media in Zimbabwe. We urge the international community publicly to condemn this decision," said Alan Rusbridger, editor of the paper.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa called on the government "to reverse this unreasonable and unjust expulsion order."

Since the media law was signed in March, 13 independent journalists have been charged with publishing false information. Mr. Meldrum's case was the first to be tried.

He was arrested in May after reporting that ruling-party supporters had killed a woman. The woman's husband reportedly said that she had been hacked to death and decapitated in front of her two children. The story originally had been reported in the Daily News, the country's only independent daily.

Police said the killing never took place, and the Daily News retracted the story, saying it was tricked by an informant to discredit the paper, which is often critical of the government.

Judge Macheyo said prosecutors had not disputed Mr. Meldrum's testimony that police spokesmen refused to talk to the independent media.

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