The Post’s demise seen as death of democracy

zambia postfrom ARNOLD MULENGA in Lusaka, Zambia
LUSAKA, (CAJ News) – THE closure of the Post Newspaper, the biggest selling newspaper in Zambia, has been denounced as a crackdown by government on dissenting voices and weaken the opposition ahead of crucial elections scheduled for August.

On Tuesday, Zambia Revenue Authority officers (ZRA), under instructions from State House, descended on The Post offices in Lusaka with a demand notice of K68 million (US$6,1 million).

Heavily armed police officers have taken over the building.

Post Newspapers general manager for finance Rowena Zulu then explained that the money ZRA was demanding had already been paid almost in total.

However, ZRA officers responded that they had not yet accessed the money and thus they could not withdraw the warrant of distress.

Lawyers of the publication, Nchito and Nchito, produced a court order restraining the officers from issuing a warrant of distress on Post but the officers disobeyed the order.

The move has been seen as a calculated attempt to silence the privately-owned newspaper which since formation in 1991 has been a fierce critic of the government.

Editor-in-Chief, Fred M’membe, alleged a ploy as ZRA had in the recent past raided the Post Newspapers in a bid to recover alleged outstanding contributions but the action was challenged in court by the newspaper.

“They are running away from proper reconciliation because they know the amounts they are demanding from us cannot stand. But because they have promised their political masters they will have us closed before the end of this week, as we have already revealed, they had to behave unreasonably and in such a dishonest manner. They have to band around these big figures
to make it appear that they have a case against The Post,” he said.

M’membe alleged the closure is influenced by plans disclosed by the paper by government to rig the elections.

“They also know that with The Post around, their rigging of these elections will be revealed for all the Zambians to see, hence this attempt to ensure that The Post is not there at the time of the elections. As we have repeatedly stated, the actions of Zambia Revenue Authority against The Post have nothing to do with tax collection. It is simply a shameless
and naked political scheme to silence a critical voice.”

A daily paper founded in 1991, The Post has been a daily since 2000 and has on a number of occasions incurred the wrath of government political

It is believed to have helped stop the then-president Frederick Chiluba from changing the constitution to enable him run for a third term.

In recent years, the post newspaper had become a voice of the people. Many Zambian have expressed views about the government which they would not have expressed in the heavily –controlled government-owned media.

In 2001, M’membe was arrested for calling Chiluba a thief. The case was disposed off by the President Levy Mwanawasa in 2002.

In 2005, M’membe was again arrested for defamation charges “following an editorial in which he wrote that Mwanawasa was a man of “foolishness, stupidity, and lack of humility.”

Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zambia) called on ZRA to immediately reconsider its actions and questioned the move to close the Post and the lack of due process as the move was clearly politically motivated.

She questioned why ZRA had not moved on other companies that owe sums much bigger then what was at the centre of the Post tax claim.

MISA-Zambia Chairperson, Hellen Mwale, noted The Post’s role in promoting democracy and offering a platform to dissenting views, which had been blacked out in most media outlets.

She noted that The Post had indicated its will to comply and had even paid the principle sum which therefore brings into question the genuineness of the ZRA action in addition to their refusal to recognise a lawfully obtained court injunction.

“MISA Zambia noted that a media house’s economic freedom is closely linked to its editorial freedom and the situation with The Post is a classic example of what happens when economic freedom is manipulated to interfere with a media house’s editorial freedom,” said Mwale.

The International Press Institute (IPI) condemned Zambian authorities’ seizure of The Post.

It questioned the timing of the shutting down, coming some seven weeks before the polls.

“We condemn the seizure of The Post, which is all the more disturbing given its proximity to the upcoming election,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven Ellis said.

“The misuse of state authority to silence the only major media outlet giving opposition parties a platform can only be seen as an effort to deny voters the information they need to make an informed decision about their future and an assault on democracy,” said Ellis.

Zambians are scheduled to vote on August 11 in an election that will include a referendum on constitutional changes.

Critics say that the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party, led by President Edgar Lungu, has actively worked to deny media coverage to the opposition, despite that fact that most of the country’s media outlets are taxpayer-funded.

The national broadcaster, Zambia National Broadcasting has refused to cover any opposition election campaigns or show any opposition advertisements that criticise of the PF government.

The opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) has alleged The Post had been shut down yet the outstanding ZRA and statutory debts of the various pro-government media outlets had been ignored.

Earlier this month, 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 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.

Several people interviewed on Thursday in Lusaka shared different views regarding the closure of the country’s leading daily newspaper.

Lubambo Lungu, a freelance journalist in Lusaka, said the closure of the paper was “politically motivated.”

“This is nothing but politics at play. The government is using ZRA to clamp down on privately but independent media that boasts widest readership. While the issue of tax holds water, the timing is suspicious if not politically motivated,” said Lungu.

However, others differed.

“How special is M’membe to drive his Post without paying taxes. M’membe call other thieves when he too is stealing from the people of Zambia by not paying taxes. The issues here are very clear, The Post should pay the taxes and they will be open again,” said an observer in Lusaka.

On Wednesday, the last edition of The Post was sold out within hours of hitting the streets.

The limited special edition which was printed from a secret location was selling at an increased cover price of K15, up from K10.

– CAJ News

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