Watchdog slams libel onslaught against Zimbabwean paper

Harare – Press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, has expressed outrage by the libel suit brought against "The Standard" newspaper by Zimbabwe’s First Lady Grace Mugabe, saying the case was part of a government ploy to financially cripple the private weekly, APA learns in a statement from the watchdog.\r\n

President Robert Mugabe’s wife is demanding US$15 million in damages from "The Standard" for quoting a US diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks that accused her of involvement in diamond trafficking.

“The First Lady’s libel suit aims to undermine "The Standard", which just reported information available to everyone thanks to WikiLeaks.

It highlights the dangers of reporting compromising allegations about senior officials or people linked to the government in Zimbabwe,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on Thursday.

Filed on 15 December, the libel suit was prompted by a report about a 2008 cable in which the then United States ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, told Washington that Grace Mugabe and other members of the Zimbabwean elite were earning substantial sums from trafficking in diamonds from the Chiadzwa mine in the eastern region of Marange.

He estimated that the First Lady and her partners were earning "several hundred thousand dollars a month" from the trade.

“This case is one more example of how the government is trying to strangle critical news media financially. Suing The Standard for such an exorbitant sum in damages is tantamount to forcing it to shut down,” the watchdog warned.

The paper is facing another libel suit brought by central bank governor Gideon Gono, who is alleged to have printed additional Zimbabwean banknotes to finance Grace’s purchases of diamonds from the mine.

Mines Minister Obert Mpofu is also suing the newspaper for US$25 million over a story about a property-buying spree while Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe has lodged a US$500,000 lawsuit against the publication over an article that insinuated she was pregnant by a wealthy Zimbabwean businessman.

The state-owned Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation is also suing it for US$10 million over a story saying its executives were getting rich while delaying the payment of journalists’ salaries.