Zimbabwe court says MIC illegal

Zimbabwean journalists have been pressing the country’s new unity government to scrap tough media laws which critics say President Robert Mugabe has used to muzzle his opponents.

But the ruling, which the state has appealed against, is unlikely to change significantly the working environment for local and foreign journalists in the short term as senior officials around Mugabe are fighting to retain control of media registration.

The court decision on Friday followed a challenge by local journalists that the Media and Information Commission (MIC) had no right to continue functioning as it was legally disbanded in January 2008. A new body was supposed to be appointed by the unity government.

"The court ruled that MIC is illegally constituted and functioning, and should not be accrediting journalists or registering media organisations because this is now the responsibility of the Zimbabwe Media Commission which has not yet been constituted," lawyer Selby Hwacha said.

"This is a major ruling in the interests of press freedom because it means for now, journalists can operate without accreditation," he told reporters.

Judge Bharat Patel had ruled that accreditation carried out by MIC since January 2008 was invalid, he said.

There was no immediate comment from government’s lawyers.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party adopted regulations seven years ago imposing strict registration conditions for private news organisations, barring foreign journalists from basing themselves in the country and authorising almost routine arrests of journalists accused of reporting "falsehoods".  

Western donors have demanded broad economic and political reforms before committing any of the billions of dollars the new government says are needed to rescue an economy ravaged by years of hyperinflation.

A power-sharing pact signed last year by Mugabe and Tsvangirai, which led to the formation of the unity government in February, is yet to be fully implemented.

Hwacha said the High Court ruling also meant Zimbabwean journalists could now cover a weekend summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern African (COMESA), which Zimbabwe is hosting, without any accreditation.