NAIROBI, Kenya — A court in Zimbabwe convicted a freelance reporter for The New York Times on charges of breaching the country’s immigration laws, in another blow for the free press in the increasingly authoritarian southern African country.
The journalist, Jeffrey Moyo, has been accused of obtaining fake press credentials for two Times journalists who entered Zimbabwe last year on a reporting trip. Mr. Moyo’s lawyers said the charges were baseless, and even one lawyer for the government had said the case was “on shaky ground.”
Sentencing was expected to come later in the day. Before the hearing, his lawyers said they would appeal the verdict in the event of a conviction.
At a hearing in the city of Bulawayo on Tuesday, Magistrate Mark Nzira said that “from the evidence before the court, it is clear that the accused may have connived” to make fake press cards for the two Times journalists.
Analysts called the case part of a wider assault on press freedoms in Zimbabwe, where the economy has crumbled as promised political reforms have failed to materialize under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, after the high hopes that came with the ouster in 2017 of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe.
Reporters have been arrested and hauled before the courts on spurious charges in cases that can drag on for months or years. Some say they have been assaulted by police officers. Freedom House, a nonprofit based in Washington that measures the strength of political and civic rights around the world, downgraded Zimbabwe from “partly free” to “not free” in recent years.
Experts say that Mr. Mnangagwa and his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front, are seeking to stifle critics in advance of elections scheduled for next year. In one recent incident, two journalists were arrested as they covered the arrest of an opposition parliamentarian outside a polling station. One said he was assaulted by a police officer who crushed his phone. If convicted they face up to a year in prison.
The legal difficulties for Mr. Moyo, 37, who has worked for The Times and a number of other news organizations, started in May 2021 when he helped two Times journalists, Christina Goldbaum and João Silva, to enter Zimbabwe on a reporting visit.
Mr. Moyo obtained press cards for the journalists from the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the state regulator, which they used to obtain visas at Bulawayo airport on May 5. But three days later, an immigration officer canceled those visas, claiming the accreditation was fraudulent. The police ordered Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva to leave.
Two weeks later, Mr. Moyo was arrested on charges of helping the journalists to acquire fake documents. Thabang Manhika, the Media Commission official who provided them, was also arrested. The two men were tried separately.
Mr. Moyo was moved to a prison in Bulawayo where he was held in harsh conditions, stripped of most of his clothes and forced to sleep on a bare floor in a lice-infested cell. What followed was a Kafkaesque trial, replete with strange twists and contradictions.
A magistrate initially refused bail to Mr. Moyo, describing him as “a threat to national security.” Weeks later the journalist was released on a bond of about $14 after a government lawyer conceded in a court filing that their case was “on shaky ground.”
A key prosecution witness claimed that important documents had been lost or stolen. He declined to answer questions from the defense, asserting that his hearing was impaired, drawing a rebuke from the presiding magistrate. “I know you can hear,” said Magistrate Mark Nzira.
In February, the prosecution abruptly ended its case without calling major witnesses, including the chief police investigator. Mr. Manhika, the Media Commission official accused of supplying the fake press cards, was acquitted in March. Still, the case against Mr. Moyo dragged on.
“Right from the outset, it appeared something was driving the case other than the evidence that the state held against Jeff,” said Mr. Coltart, the defense lawyer.
While the trial produced no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Moyo, who did not testify, it painted a picture of turf battles between the Zimbabwe Media Commission and the ministry of information.
Mr. Mnangagwa promised a “new Zimbabwe” when he came to power after the coup that ousted Mr. Mugabe. Promising a break with years of crushing authoritarian rule and spiraling economic decline, he vowed to create jobs, introduce democratic reforms and reverse the government’s dismal human rights record.
Five years on, many Zimbabweans say the situation has only gotten worse. Millions are unemployed, inflation is running at 132 percent, and the currency is collapsing. Fuel stations and some shops demand payment in United States dollars. Experts fear a return to the hyperinflation that ravaged Zimbabwe in the late 2000s.
A series of erratic government decisions has contributed to the decline. In early May, Mr. Mnangagwa ordered banks to stop lending money, drawing criticism from economists who accused him of shattering economic confidence. Ten days later, the government reversed the order.
A hunger crisis driven by high food and fuel prices, and compounded by the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns and Russia’s war in Ukraine, has left nearly three million Zimbabweans in rural areas without enough to eat, according to the World Food Program.
Zimbabwe’s decline is one element of a regional slide in southern Africa, alongside a vicious Islamist insurgency in Mozambique and deepening economic malaise in South Africa.
Mr. Mnangagwa has responded by cracking down on his critics.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the government used Covid restrictions to justify stepping up harassment, assaults and detentions. The novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested during an anti-government protest and an investigative journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, was prosecuted on charges related to his social media activity.
Mr. Chin’ono was later cleared on two of the charges against him, and the number of attacks against reporters fell last year, said Angela Quintal, the Africa coordinator for the Committee to Project Journalists, a global advocacy group.
But on June 6 the police arrested Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of the ZimLive website, and charged him with undermining the president’s authority over a tweet that he wrote. Mr. Chin’ono still faces a third charge, of obstructing justice, also over a tweet, in a case that is still ongoing.
“The whole idea is to punish you for reporting,” Mr. Chin’ono said in an interview. “If you expose corruption or misgovernance, you become a prime target of political persecution.”
Mr. Moyo’s trial comes at a time when attacks on journalists across the globe are running at an all-time high, Taliban fighters have beaten reporters in Afghanistan, at least 50 journalists were known to be imprisoned in China last year, and former President Donald Trump has continued to malign the news media in the United States.
In Zimbabwe, Mr. Moyo’s case “is being used to send a signal to local journalists to toe the line,” Ms. Quintal said. The message, she added, is that “working for foreign media will not protect you, especially with next year’s looming election.”