UK and African lawyers team up to free Zimbabwe’s press

Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper The Daily News is back on the streets after a three-month hiatus, following a campaign by African and UK lawyers.

In October 2003, Zimbabwean lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was arrested for advising the paper. By 21 January, Mtetwa was free and the Harare Administrative Court had ordered the police out of the offices of the best-selling newspaper thanks to lawyers in Africa and the UK from the Commonwealth Press Union’s (CPU) Legal Support Programme (LSP).

After an introduction through the LSP, Lucy Moorman of Doughty Street Chambers liaised with Harare lawyers to help the paper mount constitutional challenges to legislation limiting freedom of the press.

The paper, known for being vociferously critical of Robert Mugabe’s regime, has had its editors and staff arrested and journalists expelled from the country. Its printing press was also bombed.

However, it was faced with closure when, in 2002, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government passed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, which established the Media and Information Commission (MIC), a government-appointed body to register newspapers and journalists. The Daily News was alone in fighting the new regime. It refused to register and mounted a Supreme Court constitutional challenge to the law.

The paper filed a claim in the Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court, but in September 2003 the court ruled that it was operating illegally. It was ordered to register with the MIC before its arguments could be heard. Its application for registration was then refused.

The decision preceded several months of intimidation and threats, but in October the Administrative Court found that the MIC was biased by refusing to register the paper.

The LSP was founded in 2003 by CPU executive director Lindsay Ross, with Harvey Kass, legal director at Associated Newspapers. It introduces members to UK media lawyers who offer pro bono advice. Associated Newspapers legal director Mary Russell said many of the CPU’s 700 member publications were “cash-strapped and experiencing huge freedom of expression issues”.

A cabal of solicitors and barristers have pledged their support. Firms include Bindman & Partners, Clifford Chance, Foot Anstey Sargent, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and Simons Muirhead & Burton; chambers include One Brick Court, Doughty Street, Matrix and 5 Raymond Buildings.

The programme is active in Africa, the Caribbean and Pakistan. For example, when four Gambian newspapers challenged the repressive National Media Commission Act, the LSP put them in touch with UK lawyers. But as Russell points out, high damages awards in libel cases can also threaten the very existence of newspapers and can have a freezing effect on freedom of expression.

For the media lawyers involved, it is a rare opportunity to use their expertise to help protect freedom of expression around the world. As Russell says: “To be able to use their skills in countries where there are extreme problems, with draconian censorship laws and journalists being imprisoned, is hugely challenging and rewarding.”