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Break in the Zimbabwe trial of a freelance journalist for the Times

The trial in Zimbabwe of a freelance journalist working for the New York Times, a case seen as a litmus test of press freedom in the southern African country, broke down on Friday after three days that included testimony of a key state witness, who was unable to produce the documents at the heart of the case.

The journalist, Jeffrey Moyo, 37, was accused of fabricating credentials for two Times journalists, Christina Goldbaum and João Silva, who flew from South Africa to the southwestern town of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe last May for a reporting trip.

They were expelled after a few days. Mr. Moyo was arrested and charged a few weeks later, and faces up to ten years in prison, a fine or both. He pleaded innocent.

The trial in Bulawayo, which began on Wednesday and was originally scheduled to last four days, will resume on February 14. Lawyers for Mr. Moyo attributed the adjournment to procedural delays at the start of the trial, scheduling conflicts and over-due testimony and cross-examination.

Defense attorneys said Mr Moyo did nothing wrong and followed proper procedures to obtain the credentials. They argued that the Zimbabwean authorities had no evidence to prove the documents were forged – in effect claiming the government had ulterior motives to deport Ms Goldbaum and Mr Silva.

Prosecutors acknowledged in court papers when Mr Moyo was released on bail last June that their case was on “shaky ground”.

Other weaknesses in their case emerged early in the trial when prosecutors could not provide originals of documents they said were fabricated – only photographic images. These included an image of a cellphone image that was taken on a cellphone belonging to the state’s first witness, Bothwell Nkopilo, an immigration compliance officer.

Questions also arose from the testimony and cross-examination of Mr. Nkopilo, who said he visited Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva on May 8 at their hotel after receiving what he described as an anonymous tip. indicating that they were engaged in questionable activities. . Both were later expelled.

But Mr Nkopilo did not inform either the police or the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the agency responsible for the accreditation documents. The immigration authorities did not seize the documents in question.

When asked if he could provide the mobile phone containing the images of the documents, Mr. Nkopilo replied that he no longer had it. When asked if he could provide a diary that immigration authorities were required to keep about the events of May 8, Mr Nkopilo said his car was stolen.

During cross-examination by defense attorneys for Mr. Moyo, Doug Coltart and Beatrice Mtetwa, Mr. Nkopilo claimed that he had hearing problems and could not understand some of the questions, which caused a rebuke from Judge Mark Nzira, a senior judge handling the case, who said, “I know you can hear.”

Mr. Nkopilo’s testimony appears to have helped to accentuate what the defense called a major flaw in the state’s case – the claim that the credentials were fabricated.

“The theory that was advanced to the witness, Mr. Coltart said, was that the real reason they deported the two foreign nationals was not because they had false accreditation cards but precisely because they wanted to prevent them from doing their job as journalists and reporters.

Mr Coltart said that if the Zimbabwean authorities had really believed the accreditation cards were fake, “they would certainly have seized these cards as evidence of the commission of an offence”.

Mr Moyo was initially charged with a co-defendant, Thabang Manhika, a Zimbabwe Media Commission official. Mr. Manhika provided the documents to Mr. Moyo, who then gave them to Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva.

The charges were separated on Tuesday and Mr. Manhika will face his own trial later this month.

The Times and the Committee to Protect Journalists criticized Mr Moyo’s prosecution as a chilling message from President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government about the ability of journalists to do their job.

Mr Moyo received further support this week from the South African National Publishers Forum, which had previously expressed belief in his innocence.

“We are behind him and believe that ultimately media freedom will prevail,” said the group’s chief executive, Reggy Moalusi. “We reiterate that Moyo is a legitimate journalist and his credentials are above all else. His right to practice as a journalist must be supported and respected by the Zimbabwean authorities.

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