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From the October 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 10)

International Editor of the Year Award

A Small Victory

Iden Wetherell, Zimbabwe Independent (opposition weekly), Harare, Zimbabwe, July 19, 2002

Nothing reveals the paranoia and insecurity felt by this regime more than the arbitrary way it has dealt with Andrew Meldrum, the Zimbabwe correspondent of London’s The Guardian, vindicated in the courts this week yet threatened with deportation by a spiteful government that long ago lost the battle for hearts and minds.

I first met Andy shortly after his arrival in Zimbabwe in 1980. He impressed me as a conscientious journalist keen to acquit himself well in the challenging environment of a society in transition. Unlike many of the foreign correspondents already based here, he carried none of the baggage of the past and, if anything, was anxious to give the country’s new rulers a fair hearing.

But like anybody following events here over the years, he witnessed a once-hopeful beginning turn sour as a result of greed, corruption, and an unwillingness to accept democratic norms. His reports in The Guardian inevitably reflected the growing disaffection of a society oppressed and plundered by its wayward rulers. Yet his reporting remained balanced and fair. As the BBC’s John Simpson noted on Monday, it would be hard to find a more objective correspondent.

When he became a target of the ministerial cronies around President Robert Mugabe, Andy accepted his fate philosophically and gracefully, as viewers of CNN and the BBC will have seen.

There were no indignant outbursts, only a principled stand shared by all Zimbabweans. “This was a victory, not just for me but for freedom of the press,” he stated after his acquittal on Monday.

But, unbeknown to him and his wife, Dolores, the minister of home affairs 12 days earlier had signed an order canceling his permanent resident status.

This vindictive move was unprecedented. Permanent residents have hitherto enjoyed the rights and protection afforded to citizens. John Nkomo showed inexcusable weakness in acceding to the demands of the hard-liners around Mugabe in arbitrarily withdrawing the rights of somebody who had lived in this country for 22 years without once breaking its laws.

Andy has acquired a home and an adopted family. He has put numerous dependents of employees through school and college. He has shown nothing but kindness to friends and colleagues. I have often sought his invariably sensible advice. To be given 24 hours to leave everything that was dear was a cruel and undeserved fate which tells us more about this misanthropic regime than about its victim.

On Wednesday, Andy was given leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, and his deportation order will be suspended until the outcome of the appeal is known. That is however only a temporary reprieve. They are clearly determined to get rid of him.

I recall saying goodbye to a number of academics and journalists at Salisbury airport in the 1970s as the roll call of the Rhodesian Front’s prohibited immigrants mounted. Guardian correspondent Peter Niesewand was among them. Then in 1977, I found myself included on P.K. van der Byl’s hit list.

What this purge of the media and opposition activists revealed most was the changing fortunes of the Rhodesian Front’s regime. No government confident of its political security acts to remove critics in violation of their legal rights.

The Mugabe regime is demonstrating precisely that insecurity that weak governments everywhere betray.

Andy Meldrum was found by the courts to be innocent of the charges brought against him. This was despite clumsy ministerial pressure on the prosecutor and a catch-all legal
framework designed to trap all possible transgressors.

It was the government’s showcase trial under draconian new laws designed to “prove” that foreign correspondents peddle “falsehoods” about ZANU-PF’s (Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front’s) record of violence and misrule.

In any event, the court found no such thing. Meldrum behaved like any reasonable journalist would be expected to in filing his story, the magistrate ruled. The refusal of the police to answer queries from the press was a significant factor in scuttling the state’s case. [Police spokesman] Wayne Bvudzijena was understandably not called to the witness stand.

It was a signal defeat in particular for Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who drew up the profoundly defective Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. He has proved to bea sore loser as well as a liability to the regime whose foolish mantras he parrots. Sadly, the only lesson he and his malevolent master are likely to learn from all this is the need for “more fire.” Having lost this one, he will be all the more determined to prosecute others.

President Mugabe himself appeared confused by the outcome. At first he acknowledged from Cuba that the courts should decide Meldrum’s fate. “A person who has committed a crime must be tried,” he insisted on arrival in Havana. When told Meldrum had been acquitted, he declared that it would create “gridlock.”

In other words, court verdicts are useful only when they convict, a point his host would have appreciated!

As for Andy, this must be a time of great anxiety. As if the ordeal of a trial were not bad enough, he and Dolores must now face an arguably worse fate. This is his home. Ties and friendships built over 22 years are not easily severed.

But he has at least one consolation. He has stood up for all of us in the media and civic community, been vindicated in the courts, and shown the world what a mean-spirited regime we are dealing with here.

Together with his successful hearing before Justice Anele Matika on Wednesday, Andy has secured from the courts a good measure of justice. Whether that persists remains to be seen. For the time being he should savor his small but significant victory. It is a victory for all Zimbabweans in their quest for truth and justice.

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