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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Zimbabwe's feisty freedom fighter
Beatrice Mtetwa  (Pic: Pioneerafrica)
Beatrice has used the law to secure justice
The BBC News website's Justin Pearce profiles Zimbabwean human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, recipient of one of the 2005 Press Freedom Awards by the New York-based campaign group the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"I didn't do anything other than my job," says Beatrice Mtetwa, reacting to the news that the CPJ has honoured her with one of its annual Press Freedom Awards.

The Zimbabwean lawyer has defended the rights both of Zimbabwean journalists and of foreign correspondents working in the country, and the CPJ award reflects the fact that internationally, Ms Mtetwa is best known for her work in defence of the media.

But she says she also takes a lot of cases involving constitutional law, mostly in the area of human rights.

Seeing her in action was quite amazing. She goes for it and neverlets anything pass her by
Dolores Cortes, wife of deported journalist
"My most important work never gets near the media," she told the BBC News website, adding jokingly: "You guys just like to report on yourselves."

In one of Ms Mtetwa's better-known cases, she rushed to Harare airport having obtained a court order to prevent the deportation of Guardian correspondent and US citizen Andrew Meldrum in 2003.

In action

Mr Meldrum had been abducted by the police after an earlier court ruling had granted him leave to remain in the country. His whereabouts were unknown for some time until he appeared at the airport.

She is the kind of person who has a love for the job - something we need to see more of in a country fighting for democracy
Columbus Mavhungu, Zimbabwean journalist
With the new court document in her hand, she talked her way through immigration and airline officials and ran onto the airport tarmac, just too late to prevent the plane from taking off

"Seeing her in action was quite amazing," says Mr Meldrum's wife, Dolores Cortes, who witnessed the incident. "She goes for it and will never let anything pass her by."

Beatrice Mtetwa continues her work despite having been arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten and tortured by the police.

For several years she represented the Daily News, an independent and often critical paper that was subjected to criminal defamation charges by the government, before finally being closed down in 2003.

Ms Mtetwa is continuing with the case of 45 former Daily News journalists who have been charged with working without official accreditation in the period before the paper was shut down.

Love for the job

"She is the kind of person who has a love for the job," says Columbus Mavhungo, an executive member of the Zimbabwe Journalists' Union, and a former Daily News staff member.

The [legal] space has become narrow, expecially in the superior courts - especially when appointments are made not on the the basis of expertise but of political patronage
Beatrice Mtetwa
"That is the kind of person one would like to see more of in a country fighting for democracy."

As someone who has used the law to secure justice, often against the interests of the government, Beatrice Mtetwa is concerned at the erosion of the independence of Zimbabwe's judiciary.

"The space has become narrow, especially in the superior courts - especially when appointments are made not on the basis of expertise but of political patronage," she says.


She is equally worried by government moves against the independent press: "The media space has also shrunk. More and more violations are occurring and are not getting exposure."

She maintains not only her dignity but also a wicked sense of humour and a love of life that are a delight to experience
Toby Harnden, foreign correspondent
She believes that these days, the best chance of securing justice is in the magistrates' courts, which are less likely than the higher courts to be swayed by the political needs of the government.

"The magistrates are ordinary civil servants, without perks. There is now a situation in Zimbabwe where it is in the lower courts that people are most likely to get a fair hearing."

"The state say they will appeal but they seldom follow through. It's done more to please their political masters than anything else."


It was in a magistrate's court that Beatrice Mtetwa won her most recent battle in favour of foreign correspondents: Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds of the British Sunday Telegraph, who were arrested during presidential elections in April.

Toby Harnden describes her as a "heroine".

"Despite the constant harassment and a brutal beating, she maintains not only her dignity but also a wicked sense of humour and a love of life that are a delight to experience," he says.

"If it wasn't for Beatrice, Julian Simmonds and I might still be languishing in jail with another year to serve."

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