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Zimbabwe jails three drivers linked to Sky News

  • Story Highlights
  • Three Sky News drivers found guilty of possession of TV equipment
  • Police claim the defendants are journalists but the men deny the claim
  • Drivers sentenced to six months in prison with little chance of an early release
  • Zimbabwe accused of some of world's most restrictive laws for journalists
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MATABELELAND, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- British broadcaster Sky News Wednesday criticized the jail sentences given to three of its drivers in Zimbabwe, where a court found them guilty of possessing broadcast equipment without authorization.

Journalists read a newspaper in Zimbabwe, where freedom of the press is extremely limited.

The men are all from Johannesburg, South Africa and were sentenced Tuesday, according to their attorney.

"We deplore the harsh sentence given to the three South African drivers," a Sky News spokesman, who did not give his name, said in London. "We will be appealing and hope that the Zimbabwean justice system fully reappraises its decision."

A court convicted Bernet Hasani Sono, Resemate Boy Chauke, and Simon Maodi on Monday in Matabeleland, the state-run newspaper Chronicle reported.

The three men pleaded guilty to violating the Postal and Telecommunications Act but denied the truck and Sky News equipment were theirs, the state paper reported.

The judge, John Masimba, said that despite denying ownership, possession of the equipment was still a violation of the act. Masimba said in the Chronicle that it would send the wrong signal if he did not punish the men.

Sono and Maodi were additionally charged an extra six weeks in jail for violating a section of the Immigration Act after the two didn't show up to the Immigration authorities, their defense lawyer, Tawengwa Hara, said. The charge was minor but Hara said he would appeal the possession charge and the sentence.

Zimbabwean police stopped the men during a routine check at a Mbalabala roadblock in the Matabeleland South province and found boxes containing the communication equipment. The men were unable to give a reason for possessing it and were arrested, Hara said.

The police claimed the three defendants were journalists, but the men denied the claim.

"We are really outraged at six months in prison for just driving a car," said Leonard Vincent, director of the Africa desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The men's lawyer might be able to file an appeal or the South African government could try to intervene in the case, Vincent said, but it was unlikely the men could be freed before serving their full sentences.

"They are innocent victims of a very tense political situation," Vincent said.

There have been numerous media reports from Zimbabwe made without the government's authorization, prompting the arrests of several journalists. Press freedom groups say Zimbabwe has some of the world's most restrictive laws for journalist accreditation.

"They face two years in prison if caught working without this precious document," RSF said in its 2008 annual report on the country, a reference to the accreditation.

"No foreign reporter can legally work in Zimbabwe without fear of arrest, being paraded like a trophy, and expelled after high-speed sentencing."

Since the 2002 elections, the local and foreign media has deteriorated, said Tom Rhodes, the Africa program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Zimbabwe "once had the highest literary rate in sub-Saharan Africa and a vibrant media system," Rhodes said, but since the elections, draconian press laws had increasingly limited the access to information.

The accreditation law's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act blocked some foreign media and shut down several independent newspapers during the 2002 elections. This sparked more restrictions, which now requires journalists to have two forms of government approval, one from the Media Information Commission and the other from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

President Robert Mugabe amended the laws in January but authorities still use them to suppress critical press coverage, Rhodes said.

In April, however, New York Times journalist Barry Bearak and British freelancer Stephen Bevan were arrested on charges of violating the laws but were later released. And toward the end of May, distributors of the Zimbabwean Sunday paper were beaten by unknown assailants and the truck carrying the papers was burned.

CNN's Melissa Gray contributed to this report.

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