The Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) has disregarded a tribunal order to reopen the offices of The Post newspaper which was closed in June over non-payment of taxes.
A Tax Appeals Tribunal reaffirmed its instructions to the ZRA but the newspapers’ offices remain closed.
On July 27, 2016, the tribunal ordered tax ZRA to hand over seized properties of the newspaper until a full appeal can be heard and to initiate an immediate process through which the company could pay undisputed amounts to the revenue authority.
The tribunal’s registrar, Chola Shapi Mutambo, dismissed with costs, the ZRA’s application to set aside the order granted to Post Newspapers Limited.
In her ruling last Wednesday, Mutambo said she was satisfied that the newspaper publisher had adhered to all the requirements of the Tax Appeals Tribunal Act. The substantive case would however to heard at a later date.
“I find that the respondent’s (ZRA) application to dismiss the notice of appeal and discharge the … order has no merit to justify such action. I accordingly dismiss this application with the costs to the appellants. “Mutambo is said.
In June, officials of the Zambia Revenue Authority – according to the Post, under instruction from the government and accompanied by security officers – went to the offices of the newspaper demanding disputed tax arrears of about K53 million.
And the International Press Institute (IPI) says Zambian authorities should stop defying a court order to allow opposition newspaper The Post to access its offices and printing presses and resume regular publication while the correct amount of a disputed tax bill is determined.
The call followed Wednesday’s ruling by Zambia’s Tax Appeals Tribunal upholding the order and rejecting the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA)’s bid to block The Post from obtaining review of a 54-million-kwacha bill for allegedly unpaid VAT receipts and income tax withholding.
Registrar Chola Shapi Mutambo said in an interlocutory ruling that the ZRA’s refusal to even consider the paper’s objections to the amount gave the Tribunal jurisdiction to hear The Post’s appeal.
“It is against the rules of natural justice to simply refuse to consider objections to an assessment brought on appeal by a taxpayer,” she wrote. “This, in a way, is hindering the justice system.”
The registrar similarly rejected the ZRA’s argument that the Tribunal could not stay a seizure that the ZRA contended already happened. Noting that the execution against Post property was “a process” that remains ongoing, she opined that “[t]here was much to be stayed” when The Post sought the order in the days immediately following the ZRA’s initial June 21 seizure of its offices and printing press.
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said that IPI was pleased by the decision, but that it remained troubled by the ZRA’s willingness to disobey the Tribunal’s order and its refusal to even listen to The Post’s objections to the bill.
“We are happy that The Post will finally have its day in court to challenge this tax bill, which by all indications appears to be a pretext to silence an alternative voice ahead of elections,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis.
“Nevertheless, it defies belief that the ZRA would not only flout a court order, but waste time and taxpayers’ money in a fight to keep from even sitting down with The Post to resolve the matter.”
He continued: “As delegates from IPI and the African Media Initiative (AMI) noted following a joint emergency press freedom mission to Zambia last month, this case is not about taxes. If it was, the ZRA would work with The Post to reconcile the amount owed; The Post would be operating at full capacity, generating even more vital tax revenue; and private printers who have allowed the newspaper to survive since the seizure would not be suffering raids and intimidation by government agents.”
“We urge authorities to end this misguided effort, which is an affront not only to The Post’s right to publish, but to Zambian voters’ right to freely share and receive information.”
The order that the ZRA is was challenging directs the ZRA to release The Post’s bank accounts and hand back its premises and equipment so that it can conduct business.
The order also requires The Post to pay whatever portion of the bill that it believes it actually owes while turning over other property in the value of 53 million kwacha to serve as security in exchange for the property released.
IPI and other observers have raised concerns that the ongoing seizure of The Post is an attempt to limit critical coverage of President Edgar Lungu and the ruling Patriotic Front party government in advance of next week’s elections.