June 12, 2002
His Excellency President Levy Mwanawasa
Via facsimile: 260-1-253408/253669
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the imprisonment of four journalists–Emmanuel Chilekwa, Shadreck Banda, Kinsley Lweendo, and Jane Chirwa–from the independent, Lusaka-based weekly The People.
The journalists have been in jail for a week and have not been granted bail. The absence of these four journalists has forced the paper to cease publication.
Their imprisonment is an egregious violation of press freedom in what appears to be a worsening climate for professional journalism since Your Excellency came to office in early 2002.
On May 29, the paper’s managing editor, Chilekwa, went to police headquarters in response to a police “call-out” he had received the previous day. He was informed that he was under investigation for defaming the president in connection with an article that appeared in the May 25-31 issue of The People titled, “Mwanawasa Has Brain Disease.”
The article alleged that Your Excellency was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and implied that you were thus unfit to be president.
After questioning, Chilekwa was released. On May 31, however, police picked up and interrogated him, along with assistant editor Banda, and student reporter Chirwa. Zambian sources say Chilekwa and Banda were both physically harassed during their arrests. All three were released later that day.
On June 5, Chilekwa, Banda, Chirwa, and Lweendo, a senior reporter with the paper, were arrested and charged with defaming the president. Under Article 69 of the Zambian Penal Code, “defamation of the president” is punishable by up to three years in prison.
On June 7, all four journalists appeared in court and pleaded not guilty. Judge Frank Tembo, who presided over the hearing, decided to postpone ruling on their bail application until the next hearing, scheduled for June 25. Meanwhile, the journalists remain in jail.
When contacted by CPJ, Nicholas Chanda, the journalists’ attorney, said that this move was highly unorthodox because journalists who have faced this same charge in the past have been granted bail. Moreover, the state prosecutors did not object to bail being granted.
This is the second time since you took office that a journalist has been charged with defaming the president. In February, Fred M’membe, editor-in-chief of the independent daily The Post, was charged with defamation after The Post quoted an opposition politician as calling you a “cabbage.” The charge was later dropped.
Your repeated prosecution of journalists has created a climate of intimidation for the press in Zambia. On June 6, in Lusaka, members of your ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy confiscated copies of newspapers that criticized you from vendors and then severely beat the salesmen.
The imprisonment of The People journalists and the attacks on newspaper vendors appear to be an attempt to silence criticism of you and your administration. In a related incident of censorship, Minister of Agriculture Mundia Sikatana recently obtained a court injunction preventing The People from publishing anything about the minister’s alleged connections with al-Qaeda, a story the paper was investigating.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending and promoting press freedom worldwide, we believe that journalists should never face criminal prosecution for their work.
Your Excellency, as the leader of your country, you are at the center of public debate. Therefore, you and other high-ranking government officials must tolerate public scrutiny, including harsh criticism. Journalists cannot fulfill their role as long as the government has the power to criminally prosecute them for their work.
We therefore urge you to do everything within your power to see that the lawsuits against Emmanuel Chilekwa, Shadreck Banda, Kinsley Lweendo, and Jane Chirwa are dropped and that they are released from jail. We also call on you to work toward decriminalizing press offenses in Zambia so that journalists are allowed to practice their profession freely, without fear of reprisals.
Thank you for your attention in this urgent matter. We await your reply.