The International Press Institute (IPI)’s Executive Board has blasted what it calls an ongoing campaign of harassment targeting daily newspaper The Post in Zambia, saying that if efforts to silence independent media persist, upcoming general elections would be rendered “little more than a sham; an exercise inconsistent with democracy”.
Citing a number of recent events targeting The Post – including its recent shutdown by revenue authorities over tax debts and the alleged beating by police of the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and IPI World Press Freedom Hero Fred M’membe– the Board members in an open letter called on President Edgar Lungu to allow all media outlets to operate independently and to cover all parties contesting the August 11 elections in a free and fair manner.
They also specifically called for an end to government harassment of The Post; for charges against Mr M’membe and others to be dropped and for police officers who allegedly assaulted them to be held accountable; for Zambia’s Revenue Authority to be allowed to do its job without political pressure; and for the government to respect the judiciary’s independence.
“As a result of recent events, we greatly fear that Zambians overall are being prevented from sharing and receiving the information that they need to make an informed decision about their future when they go to the polls in August to elect their country’s leaders,” the Board members said.
Mr M’membe, his wife Mutintand Deputy News Editor Joseph Mwenda were released on bail Tuesday afternoon and charged with criminal trespass and uttering a forged document after he was detained early yesterday morning when he attempted to enter The Post’s shuttered offices after obtaining a court order directing the Zambian Revenue Authority (ZRA) to release assets it seized early this week to satisfy tax debts.
The Post disputes the amounts owed to the government and argues that the ZRA’s attempts to collect the debt on the eve of the upcoming election to choose the country’s president and General Assembly – rather than waiting until an appeals court rules on the matter – represent an attempt by Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front (PF) Party to stifle debate and rig the election.
The full text of the letter appears below.
His Excellency Mr. Edgar C. Lungu
President of the Republic of Zambia
PO Box 30135
Vienna, 29 June 2016
RE: Ongoing pressure against The Post
We, the undersigned members of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI) – a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists dedicated to protecting press freedom – write to show our support for our Zambian colleague and IPI World Press Freedom Hero Fred M’membe, editor-in-chief of The Post newspaper, and to condemn a campaign of government harassment targeting The Post.
On June 21, officers of the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) raided The Post’s offices and printing press to collect a reported 68 million kwacha (approx. €5.47 million) in allegedly unpaid taxes. Employees were forced to leave, the premises were locked and heavily armed police guards were stationed outside. The Post has disputed the amount due and the raid came despite The Post’s pending appeal to determine the correct amount owed.
Notwithstanding being locked out of its offices and printing press, The Post continued to print and distribute copies daily. The Post also obtained a court order compelling the ZRA to allow The Post to reopen its offices. However, in response, we understand that you appeared on state broadcaster ZNBC to condemn the court for issuing the order.
At approximately 1 a.m. yesterday morning, M’membe, armed with the court order, attempted to enter The Post’s premises with his wife, Mutinta Mazoka-M’membe, and Post Deputy Managing Editor Joseph Mwenda. Police refused to recognise the order, instead detaining them and summoning additional officers from the presidential palace.
Led by your special advisor for political affairs, Kaizer Zulu, officers from the State House also refused to recognise the order. M’membe and the others were held for two hours before being taken to a police station. During this period, they claim that M’membe was beaten and the others manhandled. The newspaper’s lawyer, Nchima Nchito, was also reportedly beaten. M’membe, his wife and Mwenda were subsequently charged with criminal trespass and uttering a false document – the court order, which prosecutors apparently claim was illegally obtained – and released on bail.
Yesterday’s developments are the latest in a series of incidents over the last 18 months in which your ruling Patriotic Front (PF) Party government has increased pressure on The Post. In April, two Post journalists were criminally charged with defaming you for reporting an opposition politician’s allegation that you used taxpayer money to vacation.
In November of last year, the ZRA raided The Post over disputed tax obligations, leading a court to issue an injunction against immediate collection while The Post appealed. The court noted that allowing collection would shutter the Post, making the appeal pointless. That followed an incident in which a bullet penetrated the paper’s newsroom. Authorities last July also brought criminal charges against M’membe for allegedly disclosing classified information in an investigative piece about alleged corruption in the PF.
Despite your public assertions to the contrary, it is difficult to conclude that the ZRA is operating independent of political pressure, given that outstanding tax debts of media outlets widely perceived to be pro-government – such as ZNBC, the Daily Mail and the Times of Zambia – reportedly have gone ignored.
As you know, Zambians are scheduled to choose their president and General Assembly on Aug. 11. However, the PF has apparently engaged in an active strategy to deny media coverage to opposition parties, including blocking coverage of any criticism of your government in mainstream media outlets, most of which are funded by taxpayers.
On June 12, excerpts from a leaked document were published purporting to outline a PF strategy to rig election results and brutalise the opposition. Among other efforts, the document indicated that “No form of media should be given to the [United Party for National Development (UPND)] in the form of news or campaign advertisements” and that a “massive media character assassination” campaign should be launched against UPND presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema. The document also said that “prime efforts” would be made to eliminate coverage by The Post.
The Post is one of the only major media outlets giving balanced political coverage of the ruling PF government and the upcoming election, including providing a platform for opposition parties to be heard. While many online news outlets are able to operate more freely, very few Zambians have regular access to online media, making independent newspapers and broadcasters vitally important.
We note that The Post and M’membe have not refused to pay taxes that are indeed owed. They have simply asked that the ZRA delay collection until Zambia’s judiciary is allowed to fully consider the matter. However, rather than allow the courts to rule, the ZRA opted to seize The Post, risking its complete shutdown some 51 days before an election.
We also note that the newspaper was not accused of endangering public safety or other impropriety as to its reporting. There is therefore no reason not to allow it to continue to publish through the election and to give courts time to determine how much tax is owed. A failure to do so would cause irreparable harm to both The Post and to Zambian voters.
As a result of recent events, we greatly fear that Zambians overall are being prevented from sharing and receiving the information that they need to make an informed decision about their future when they go to the polls in August to elect their country’s leaders.
We therefore call on you, on all representatives of Zambia’s government and on representatives of the PF to immediately halt the campaign of harassment targeting The Post and to allow it to report freely on the upcoming election.
We also call on your government to:
• Drop the criminal charges against M’membe and the others detained with him immediately, and hold those responsible for assaults on them accountable;
• Allow all media outlets in Zambia to operate independently and to cover all parties contesting the upcoming elections in a free and fair manner;
• Ensure that the ZRA is allowed to fulfil its statutory functions without political interference; and
• Respect the independence of the judiciary and ensure that all parties in Zambia respect and abide by orders issued by the courts.
If the current situation is allowed to stand, it would render the upcoming elections little more than a sham; an exercise inconsistent with democracy. Zambia deserves better.
Yours respectfully and sincerely,
The Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI)
• John Yearwood, Chair; Former World Editor, The Miami Herald, USA
• Ken MacQuarrie, Vice Chair; Director, BBC Scotland, UK
• Markus Spillmann, Vice Chair; Founder & CEO, SPILLMANN Media Strategy Management GmbH, Switzerland
• Dawn Thomas, Vice Chair; Chief Executive Officer, One Caribbean Media Ltd., Trinidad & Tobago
• Owais Aslam Ali, Chairman, Pakistan Press International (PPI), Pakistan
• Karl Amon, Director of Radio, Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF), Austria
• Beata Balogová, Editor-in-Chief, SME, Slovakia
• Ole Kristian Bjellaanes, Managing Editor, Norwegian News Agency, Norway
• Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, Editor-in-Chief & CEO, Boishakhi TV, Bangladesh
• Ken Choi, Deputy Editor, ChosunIlbo, South Korea
• Sami El Haj, Head, Human Rights and Public Liberties Desk, Aljazeera Media Network, Qatar
• Kim Fletcher, Editor, The British Journalism Review, UK
• Kadri Gürsel, Political Columnist, Cumhuriyet and Al-Monitor, Turkey
• Daniel Hadad, CEO, Grupo Infobae, Argentina
• Ferial Haffajee, Editor-in-Chief, City Press, South Africa
• Johannes Hano, Bureau Chief, ZDF German Television (New York/Canada), Germany
• Hiroshi Komatsu, Chief Editorial Writer, the Mainichi Shimbun, Japan
• Daoud Kuttab, Director General, Founder, Community Media Network, AmmanNet, Jordan
• Joe Muganda, Group CEO, Nation Media Group, Kenya
• Kaius Niemi, Senior Editor-in-Chief, Helsingin Sanomat, Sanoma Media, Finland
• Virginia Pérez Alonso, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, El Mundo, Spain
• N. Ravi, Director, The Hindu, India
• Martha Steffens, Professor, SABEW Chair in Business and Financial Reporting, University of Missouri School of Journalism, USA
• Kabiru Yusuf, Chairman, Media Trust Ltd, Nigeria