Prominent editor charged with defaming the president

New York, November 9, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists today voiced outrage at the criminal defamation charge brought against award-winning journalist Fred M’membe for criticizing Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa. M’membe, editor of Zambia’s leading daily The Post, was charged and released on bail after six hours in policy custody. He is due in court tomorrow, Sam Mujuda, a lawyer for The Post, said. He faces prison if convicted.

“The Zambian government has resorted to the use of a crude and brutal tool to silence commentary and criticism by an internationally acclaimed journalist,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “The criminal charge of defaming the president has no place on the statute books of a democracy.”

The charge against M’membe, who received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1995, stems from a commentary that he wrote on Monday in response to Mwanawasa’s bitter criticism on Saturday of Kenneth Kaunda, who led Zambia from independence in 1964 until 1991. Kaunda had suggested that a controversial new draft constitution would have a smoother passage if members of the opposition and others in Zambian society were consulted.

M’membe accused Mwanawasa of hypocrisy, stupidity and a “lack of humility,” and questioned “his capacity to think and reason in a more sober, logical and rational matter.” He also said that “being President of the Republic of Zambia has not helped [Mwanawasa] much ­ he is still a nobody.”

In June, police questioned M’membe and threatened to charge him with defaming the president in connection with a series of editorials accusing Mwanawasa of being a “liar” for allegedly failing to tackle official corruption, and calling on the president to resign. Earlier the same month, supporters of Mwanawasa’s ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) attacked and harassed vendors selling The Post in reprisal for articles that accused the president of shielding a former official in the Ministry of Health, Kashiwa Bulaya, from criminal prosecution for alleged corruption.

M’membe was repeatedly imprisoned, and The Post censored, under former president Frederick Chiluba, who stepped down in 2002.