Zimbabwe Abruptly Closes Prosecution of Reporter for New York Times

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NAIROBI, Kenya — In a surprising turn, Zimbabwean prosecutors abruptly ended their case on Monday against a Zimbabwean journalist working for The New York Times, raising hopes for a speedy resolution of a case widely seen as an attack on press freedom in the southern African country.

Prosecutors were expected to call several witnesses this week to testify against Jeffrey Moyo, a reporter who was accused of providing fake press credentials to two Times journalists who entered Zimbabwe last May. If convicted, Mr. Moyo faces up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine.

But after a single witness testified before the court in Bulawayo on Monday, describing a chaotic accreditation system that badly undermined the case against Mr. Moyo, government lawyers said they needed to consult with their supervisors. When they returned, they declared they would not call any other witnesses — not even the police investigator in charge of the case.

Mr. Moyo’s lawyers, who have always argued that the charges against him are spurious, said they would immediately apply to have the case dismissed.

“We are of the view that the state has failed to make out even a prima facie case against Mr. Moyo at the close of its case,” said Douglas Coltart, one of his lawyers. The judge is expected to rule on the dismissal on March 7.

Mr. Moyo, 37, who also works for other international news outlets, was detained last May and held for three weeks in a lice-infested cell in one of Zimbabwe’s oldest prisons, in Bulawayo, before being released on bail.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group, said it expected that his ordeal would soon be over.

“The state should never have proceeded to trial in the first place,” said Angela Quintal, the group’s Africa program coordinator. “We are hopeful that Jeffrey’s protracted nightmare will finally end and that he will be free to continue with his journalism without further harassment and intimidation.”

The government’s case against Mr. Moyo appeared to be weak from the start — even according to the government’s own legal team.

Mr. Moyo was accused of illegally procuring false accreditation documents for two Times journalists, Christina Goldbaum and João Silva, who flew to the southern city of Bulawayo on May 5 last year. They were deported four days later, and weeks later the police arrested Mr. Moyo, accusing him of breaching Zimbabwe’s immigration laws in a case that prosecutors initially termed a “national security issue.”

But not all government officials appeared to agree with that assessment. Mr. Moyo was released on bail in June after a government lawyer conceded in writing that the case against him was “on shaky ground,” documents filed in court said.

Mr. Moyo had obtained the accreditation for the two Times journalists in the normal manner, providing the required paperwork and receipts, he said. The documentation he obtained had come “from the rightful office which deals with that particular process,” the filing said.

The trial started last month. But a major witness called by the prosecution on Monday seemed to only further undermine its case.

Academy Chimamora, an official with the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the office that accredits foreign reporters in Zimbabwe, testified that Mr. Moyo had followed the correct procedure in obtaining papers for Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. da Silva, which he handed to them on arrival at Bulawayo airport.

Even so, the two Times reporters had not been correctly accredited in the media body’s internal system, he said. Mr. da Silva was issued the same accreditation number as a British reporter who last visited Zimbabwe during elections in 2018. Ms. Goldbaum’s file could not be found at all.

Mr. Chimamora was unable to explain the discrepancy.

Press freedom in Zimbabwe has been under assault under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to groups that monitor free speech. Independent journalists have been detained and harassed, and they have struggled to obtain official accreditation, said Ms. Quintal of the Committee to Project Journalists.

It was “unsurprising” that the prosecution case against Mr. Moyo ended early on Monday, she said, because “prosecutors were unable to show a crime was ever committed.”

Prosecutors have brought a separate case against an official with the Zimbabwe Media Commission, Thabang Manhika, who is accused of providing the documents that Mr. Moyo later handed to Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva.

That case, which was scheduled to begin last month, also appears to have stalled.

Mr. Manhika’s lawyers have argued that the case should not proceed because the prosecution failed to specify which offenses he faces. A ruling on whether the trial will proceed is expected later this week.

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