Freelance reporter for The New York Times is put on trial in Zimbabwe

Jeffrey Moyo, a freelance reporter who works for The New York Times, outside the courthouse in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. The New York Times
A freelance reporter working for The New York Times in Zimbabwe is scheduled to be tried Wednesday on accusations that he helped two other journalists for the news organisation illegally enter the country last year, a charge that even the government acknowledged at one point to be practically baseless.

The case against the reporter, Jeffrey Moyo, 37, has attracted both domestic and international attention, as evidence of increased harassment and intimidation of the media in Zimbabwe, the landlocked southern African country of 14 million.

He was initially arrested May 26, then jailed in the southwestern city of Bulawayo for three weeks before he was granted bail.

The Times, press-freedom advocacy groups and Moyo’s lawyers have said that Moyo has been wrongly accused and that he should not face trial. At the bail appeal hearing in June that secured his release from Bulawayo’s overcrowded prison, the government conceded that its case was on “shaky ground,” court papers show.

“We do consider the charges to be baseless and not only that, but the state has effectively said as much as well,” said Doug Coltart, one of Moyo's lawyers. “This is a clear-cut case, and we believe that we can show that Jeff is innocent of any wrongdoing and we hope that he will be acquitted.”

Authorities in Zimbabwe have not commented on the prosecution.

Officials have said that Moyo procured what they described as phony accreditation documents for Christina Goldbaum and João Silva, Times journalists who flew from South Africa to Bulawayo on May 5 for a reporting trip. Both Goldbaum and Silva were ordered expelled four days later.

Zimbabwe prosecutors also have accused an official of the Zimbabwe Media Commission, Thabang Manhika, with having provided the documents to Moyo, who gave them to Goldbaum and Silva upon their arrival.

Moyo and Manhika were set to be tried together. But Tuesday, the judge, Mark Nzira, granted the request of Moyo’s lawyers to separate the cases and ordered his trial to proceed Wednesday. Manhika’s lawyer said that he had not had sufficient time to prepare, and the judge set that case to begin Jan 24.

Prosecutors have provided no evidence so far to back their contention that the documents were fake, Coltart said. Moreover, the lawyer said, Moyo has provided the police with receipts that show he obtained the documents legally and that Moyo believed he had been “dealing with a bona fide ZMC official who is authorised to accredit journalists.”

Coltart said he would be seeking to separate the prosecution of his client from that of Manhika.

The decision to proceed with the case against Moyo, Coltart said, was “not surprising given that there have been some very public attacks on the independence of the judiciary under the government.”

Perhaps the most notable of these attacks have been directed at an award-winning investigative journalist and activist, Hopewell Chin’ono, who was prosecuted in 2020 on charges he had supported banned demonstrations on social media. A court in Harare, the capital, dropped the case in December, which Chin’ono described as an admission it had been trumped up from the start.

Some Zimbabwean journalists have privately expressed fears that the prosecution of Moyo was unnerving partly because of his reputation as a highly professional freelancer who has no political agenda. If it can happen to him, they argue, it can happen to anyone.

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said in a statement: “We are deeply troubled by the prosecution of Jeffrey Moyo, which appears designed to chill press freedom in Zimbabwe. Jeffrey is a widely respected journalist with many years of reporting experience in Zimbabwe.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group based in New York, has been outspoken in its criticism of Zimbabwe over Moyo’s prosecution, particularly since the government acknowledged the weaknesses in the case six months ago. If prosecutors do not drop the case, said Angela Quintal, the group’s Africa programme coordinator, that “would simply reinforce perceptions that prosecutors are acting in bad faith and are using Moyo as an example to censor and intimidate the press in Zimbabwe.”

Moyo, who has a wife and young son, has described the prosecution as an ordeal, requiring numerous trips between Bulawayo and Harare, his home base, 270 miles away.

“I hope this case just ends,” he said. “I long for my freedom. I want to work peacefully.”

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