A trial in Zimbabwe of a freelance reporter working for The New York Times, a case viewed as a litmus test of press freedom in the southern African country, paused on Friday after three days that included testimony by a chief witness for the state, who could not produce the documents at the heart of the case.
The reporter, Jeffrey Moyo, 37, has been accused of fabricating accreditation documents for two Times journalists, Christina Goldbaum and João Silva, who flew from South Africa to the southwestern Zimbabwe city of Bulawayo last May for a reporting trip.
They were ordered expelled after a few days. Mr. Moyo was arrested and charged a few weeks later, and could face up to ten years in prison, a fine, or both. He has pleaded innocent.
The trial in Bulawayo, which began Wednesday and initially had been expected to last four days, will resume on Feb. 14. Lawyers for Mr. Moyo attributed the adjournment to procedural delays at the outset of the trial, scheduling conflicts, and longer-than-expected witness testimony and cross-examination.
The defense lawyers have said Mr. Moyo did nothing wrong and followed proper procedures in securing the accreditation documents. They have argued that the Zimbabwe authorities have no evidence to prove the documents were faked — in effect contending that the government had ulterior motives for deporting Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva.
Prosecutors acknowledged in court papers when Mr. Moyo was granted bail last June that their case was on “shaky ground.”
Further weaknesses in their case emerged early in the trial when prosecutors could not provide originals of the documents they contend were fabricated — only photo images. These included an image of an image on a cellphone that had been taken on a cellphone belonging to the state’s first witness, Bothwell Nkopilo, an immigration compliance official.
Questions also arose from the testimony and cross-examination of Mr. Nkopilo, who said he had visited Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva on May 8 at their hotel after having received what he described as an anonymous tip that they were engaged in questionable activity. Both were then expelled.
But Mr. Nkopilo did not inform the police or the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the agency responsible for accreditation documents. The immigration authorities did not seize the documents in question.
Asked if he could provide the cellphone that contained document images, Mr. Nkopilo said he no longer possessed it. Asked if he could provide a diary that the immigration authorities were required to keep of the May 8 events, Mr. Nkopilo said it had been stolen from his car.
During the cross-examination by Mr. Moyo’s defense lawyers, Doug Coltart and Beatrice Mtetwa, Mr. Nkopilo asserted he had hearing problems and could not understand some of the questions, prompting a rebuke from Judge Mark Nzira, a senior justice hearing the case, who said: “I know you can hear.”
Mr. Nkopilo’s testimony appeared to have helped accentuate what the defense has called a major flaw in the state’s case — the assertion that the accreditation documents had been fabricated.
“The theory that was put to the witness,” Mr. Coltart said, “was that the real reason why they deported the two foreign nationals is not because they had fake accreditation cards but precisely because they wanted to prevent them from doing their work as journalists and reporting.”
Mr. Coltart said if the Zimbabwe authorities genuinely had believed the accreditation cards were faked, “they certainly would have seized those cards as evidence of the commission of an offense.”
Mr. Moyo was originally charged with a co-defendant, Thabang Manhika, an official of the Zimbabwe Media Commission. Mr. Manhika furnished the documents to Mr. Moyo, who then provided them to Ms. Goldbaum and Mr. Silva.
The prosecutions were separated on Tuesday and Mr. Manhika will undergo his own trial later this month.
The Times and the Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized the prosecution of Mr. Moyo as a chilling message from the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the ability of journalists to do their work.
Mr. Moyo received further backing this week from the South African National Editors Forum, which had previously expressed belief in his innocence.
“We are behind him and do believe, in the end, media freedom would trump,” said the group’s executive director, Reggy Moalusi. “We reiterate Moyo is a legitimate journalist and his credentials are above board. His right to practice as a journalist must be upheld and respected by Zimbabwean authorities.”