UK journalists deny breaking Zimbabwe laws

NORTON, Zimbabwe - Two British journalists detained in Zimbabwe have pleaded not guilty to charges of reporting without permission.

The Sunday Telegraph's chief foreign correspondent Toby Harnden and photographer Julian Simmonds denied breaking Zimbabwe's tough media laws and immigration regulations.

The pair were arrested on election day last Thursday in Norton near the capital Harare and accused of reporting on the poll without official accreditation and overstaying their visas.

Their lawyer said they were on a tourist trip and would deny entering the country to cover the elections.

The pair entered the court in Norton on Tuesday handcuffed together, dressed in prison garb of khaki shorts and shirts frayed at the collar. They stood impassively as the charges were read out. Harnden occasionally passed notes to their lawyers.

State prosecutor Albert Masamha said the men were gathering information on the elections, which pitted President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

"The accused persons had no right to cover the elections because they had no accreditation and had no right to stay in the country beyond March 28.

They didn't leave the country on the expiry of their visas," Masamha said.

The more serious charge of violating media laws carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine.

Key state witness Max Makowe, who said he was an election observer, said Simmonds had admitted the pair were journalists and conceded that they were not accredited.

Makowe said Simmonds had apologised when he approached him and asked him for his accreditation card after he started taking pictures at a polling station in Norton. Makowe said he subsequently reported them to a police officer.

He said he had not spoken to Harnden.

Defence lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said both men would deny they were working as journalists.

Addressing the immigration charge, Mtetwa said neither man's passport clearly indicated the duration of their visa and both believed they had been granted the two weeks they had applied for rather than the 7 days cited by Masamha.

She described their trip as a tourist outing which took them to Victoria Falls, Matobo national park and the southern city of Bulawayo as well as a Zimbabwe-Angola football match.

They "kept a travel diary and took pictures as is normal with tourists", she said.

She said they were in Norton for a lunch break on the way from a nearby park when they stopped off at the polling station.

Both defendants remained in custody after the hearing which was to continue on Wednesday.

Under Zimbabwe's media laws foreign journalists are banned from working in the country permanently and must seek temporary licences with a state commission for brief assignments.

Zimbabwe has arrested or deported dozens of journalists and denied others entry under its media rules, which Mugabe's government introduced three years ago.

Government officials say more than 200 journalists were accredited to cover the March 31 elections but many others had their applications rejected.

Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF trounced the MDC at the elections, which the opposition says were rigged.

- REUTERS

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