Wednesday, January 14, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — A newspaper editor, who spent the weekend in jail for publishing an article saying Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe commandeered a Boeing 767-200 jet from Zimbabwe’s national airline for a family vacation in Southeast Asia, said yesterday that the story is true.

“There is no real dispute of the facts, even from the government,” said Iden Wetherall, editor of the Independent newspaper, who was released on bail yesterday along with two of his reporters.

“At the beginning of January, President Mugabe and his family took a commercial flight to Kuala Lumpur [in Malaysia]. But, once there, he decided to visit Indonesia and Singapore, and instead of using local airlines, he phoned Air Zimbabwe and demanded that a plane, which normally flies the Harare-London route be sent to Malaysia to take him around the region,” Mr. Wetherall said by telephone, summarizing the story that the Independent published on Friday.

Mr. Wetherall and the reporters, Vincent Kahiya and Dumisani Muleyi, were arrested Saturday under the country’s draconian media laws, which provide penalties of up to two years in jail for criticizing the president.

Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo accused them of writing “lies that are blasphemous and disrespectful of the president.”

The three are expected to face court by the end of this month.

The story reported that passengers, who had booked seats from Harare, Zimbabwe, to London, were left stranded by the sudden withdrawal of the airplane.

Mr. Wetherall said in a telephone interview yesterday that the issue was one of public accountability.

“Air Zimbabwe is owned by the state and, as president, Mr. Mugabe is the government’s most-senior representative. The people of Zimbabwe, as owners of the airline, have a right to know what is happening to planes which should be carrying scheduled, fare-paying passengers.

“Air Zimbabwe’s fleet is depleted, and the airline is losing money,” he said.

“Ours was a story of national public interest.”

In 1980, Air Zimbabwe had 18 aircraft, but the carrier now is in financial difficulty, with a fleet of just five planes, of which only three are in service.

Mr. Mugabe was returned to power in 2002 in a disputed election, which many observers claimed was marred by violence and vote-rigging. Most Western countries, including the United States, Britain and Canada, have refused to recognize the result.

Mr. Mugabe also is barred from entering the United States, Europe or Australia because of his country’s poor record on human rights. As a result, he has taken most of his recent vacations in Malaysia.

Under Zimbabwe’s media laws, drafted in 2001 by Mr. Moyo, newspapers and journalists must be licensed by the state, and foreign journalists are barred from working in the country. Radio, television and most of the country’s newspapers are owned and controlled by the state.

The Daily News, a privately owned newspaper, was shut down in September.

Mr. Moyo was the subject of a story, when a South African newspaper reported that his $150,000 mansion in Johannesburg had been seized by creditors.

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