Veteran Zambian editor charged with contempt over op-ed

New York, October 15, 2009—The editor-in-chief of Zambia’s largest newspaper was criminally charged for the second time on Wednesday after running an op-ed critical of controversial pornography charges against a journalist, according to local journalists and news reports. 

Magistrate David Simusamba charged Fred M’membe, a 1995 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, and the daily Post with contempt of court over an August op-ed on the ongoing trial of Post News Editor Chansa Kabwela, according to defense lawyer Remmy Mainsa. Contempt of court charges may be used against authors of opinion pieces that comment on ongoing trials, according to Zambian law.

If convicted, under the Zambian penal code, M’membe and the paper could be fined up to 2 million kwacha (US$430) each, Mainza said. In the event of non-payment of the fines, M’Membe could be imprisoned for up to five years and the newspaper’s assets could be seized, he said.

“A magistrate has already dismissed a contempt charge against Fred M’membe, but the authorities are determined to censor coverage of this embarrassing story and so are trying again to silence the paper,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “The authorities must drop all charges against the paper and its staff immediately.”

Kabwela, news editor for The Post, was arrested in July for circulating two photographs of a woman giving birth without medical help outside the University Teaching Hospital, the newspaper reported. On June 10, Kabwela had sent the photos with a letter to the vice president, the minister of health, the cabinet secretary, the archbishop of Lusaka, and two civil society groups, urging that a medical workers’ strike be settled. Kabwela was charged with circulating obscene materials. 

Magistrate Charles Kafunda, who oversees Kabwela’s trial, previously brought contempt charges against M’membe and other Post staffers in August. The charges were later dismissed in September by High Court Judge Albert Wood, according to news reports.