New York, August 21, 2001 — Fred M’membe, editor-in-chief of the independent Zambian daily The Post, was arrested today and charged with criminal defamation of the head of state, an offence under Article 69 of Zambia’s Penal Code. He was released after posting bail.
The charges stem from an article and an editorial in the August 17 edition of The Post. Both alleged the involvement of President Frederick Chiluba in a US$4 million graft scheme.
Dipak Patel, a member of the opposition party Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) who was quoted in the article, was charged along with M’membe.
“CPJ believes that journalists should never face criminal prosecution for their work,” said executive director Ann Cooper. “Especially during this critical period before the fall elections, we call on Zambian authorities to permit the free flow of all ideas and opinions, including those that criticize the ruling party.”
Police arrested and charged M’membe today when he arrived at the Lusaka Central police station in response to a summons that his lawyer, Mutembo N’Chito, received yesterday.
M’membe was accompanied by Post reporter Bivan Saluseki and FDD politician Edith Nawakwi, who had already been charged with defamation of the president over a July Post article that also accused President Chiluba and members of his cabinet of involvement in various graft schemes.
Police had originally arrested and charged M’membe on August 18, but a magistrate ordered the editor released a few hours later on a technicality.
Police went to M’membe’s home seeking to re-arrest him that same evening, but he was not there. Zambian sources say police fired shots in the vicinity of the editor’s house in order to frighten his children.
M’membe is expected to appear in court tomorrow in connection with the case against Saluseki and Nawakwi. M’membe’s lawyer expects his client to be included in their indictment.
Meanwhile, Patel is currently in the hospital with back problems. The first hearing in the case against him and M’membe is expected to begin when Patel’s health permits.
Looking for trouble
In anticipation of upcoming elections, Zambian authorities have recently stepped up pressure on independent media that report critically on President Chiluba’s ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy.
On August 19, the Ministry of Information shut down Radio Phoenix, Zambia’s only private, non-church-owned radio station, for allegedly failing to pay its broadcasting license fee. The Information Ministry has apparently shown little interest either in disclosing the amount Radio Phoenix owes or in accepting payment from the station.
Station manager Elizabeth Pemba has since received several threatening anonymous phone calls, the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported. Civil society groups, such as the Zambia Independent Media Association, have characterized the closure as an attempt to stifle an independent and frequently critical voice.
On August 14, CPJ sent a letter of protest to President Chiluba urging his government to investigate possible abuses of Zambian criminal law to suppress independent journalism, and to ensure that local media are allowed to reflect diverse political perspectives.