Supporters of President Edgar Lungu's party celebrate his re-election in August. The country's press has been harassed during Zambia's election year. (AFP/Dawood Salim)
Supporters of President Edgar Lungu's party celebrate his re-election in August. The country's press has been harassed during Zambia's election year. (AFP/Dawood Salim)

For Zambia’s press, election year brings assaults and shut down orders

Zambia’s press has come under sustained assault in this election year, with station licenses suspended, journalists harassed or arrested for critical coverage, and one of the country’s largest privately owned papers, The Post, being provisionally liquidated in a move that its editors say is politically motivated.

The Zambian chapter of the non-governmental organization, Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zambi), noted in a report that the past few months have been turbulent for press freedom in Zambia. Journalists with whom CPJ spoke echoed those findings. They said they believe President Edgar Lungu and his allies have been emboldened by his re-election, and that the situation for the privately owned media has continued to deteriorate.

CPJ documented several instances of harassment and attacks on the press in the lead up to and after the elections, including the Zambia Revenue Authority closing the offices and printing press of The Post in June over unpaid taxes, and the broadcasting regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, ordering the privately owned stations Komboni Radio, Muvi TV, and Radio Itezhi Tezhi to be suspended in August for posing a risk to “peace and national security.” The radio and television stations are now back on air, and the amount of tax allegedly owed by The Post is disputed by the owners. Its editors told CPJ this week that they believe it was a politically motivated move to silence the critical outlet.

Other cases include:

  • In April, Joan Chirwa and Mukosa Funga of The Post were charged with defamation over an article about the president, published the previous year, the rights group, PEN reported.
  • On July 8, police arrested David Kashiki, a photographer for The Post, when he tried to take pictures of suspected police brutality at the offices of the main opposition party, United Party for National Development (UPND), according to Misa-Zambia.
  • On August 3, Elijah Mumba, a reporter for the daily, New Vison, was beaten while on assignment, allegedly by a member of the UPND, according to Misa-Zambia. When the media watchdog issued a statement about the attack, which alleged police inaction, its chairperson Hellen Mwale was summoned for questioning.
  • Lesa Kasoma, the owner of Komboni Radio, told CPJ she was assaulted by police outside her station on October 5, after the suspension order had ended. She is currently on trial for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
  • Police on October 13 questioned Prime TV managing director Gerald Shawa and station manager Makokwa Kozi over a letter they broadcast from police, that demanded the station hand over video footage recorded at an opposition leader’s press briefing, according to reports. Police spokesperson Esther Katongo told local media the letter was classified. Shawa and Kozi were cautioned for leaking the letter to the public.
  • On November 5, Njenje Chizu, a journalist with Muvi TV, was beaten by police in Kasama when more than 100 officers raided the station to prevent UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema and his deputy Geoffrey Mwamba from appearing, according to reports. In an account of the assault, Chizu said he was punched by police, who broke his camera and charged him with conduct likely to cause the breach of peace and fined him.

The office of the president did not immediately respond to CPJ’s requests for comment. Lungu’s deputy told Parliament on October 13 that the president does not order police to beat up critics.

The office of critical newspaper The Post. Editors at the Zambian daily say the order to close it in June was politically motivated. (AFP/Gianluigi Guercia)
The office of critical newspaper The Post. Editors at the Zambian daily say the order to close it in June was politically motivated. (AFP/Gianluigi Guercia)

“Things have moved from bad to worse,” said Chirwa, managing editor of The Post. The paper has been operating from a secret location since the Zambian Revenue Authority closed its offices and printing press. The revenue authority says the move is not political, but Chirwa said she believes otherwise.

“The government of Edgar Lungu is the first in Zambia’s history to have closed a newspaper, two radio stations, and a television station in a space of four months,” said Chirwa. “This is alarming and obviously tells what kind of government we have-­‑intolerant to criticism and ready to break the law with impunity.”

The Post was provisionally liquidated last week after two former employees sued it for allegedly owing money to them, a claim the newspaper denies. Fred M’membe, its editor-in-chief and a CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee, said he believes this is part of the government’s attempts — through its surrogates — to shut down the newspaper.

Chirwa told CPJ that the newspaper would challenge the attempt to liquidate it. “The Zambian government’s desire to annihilate critical, independent press is extremely alarming and a cause for serious concern among journalists and advocates of a free press worldwide,” she said.

Andrew Sakala, president of the independent Press Association of Zambia, described the liquidation as one of the darkest moments in Zambia’s journalism history. “From its inception about 25 years ago, The Post has played a critical role in the democratic process. It has been a platform for alternative voices and provided valuable information on various issues to the citizenry,” he said.

Although it was difficult to directly link the anti-media freedom actions by state agencies to the government, public pronouncements by government officials suggest there was tacit approval for their actions, Sakala said. “In some cases these agencies move into action immediately after complaints by government and ruling party officials. The suspensions of Muvi TV and Komboni radio is a case in point. The [Independent Broadcasting Authority] took action immediately after government officials complained,” he added.

Sakala said, “The situation is compounded by the fact that we have a lot of anti-media and anti-democracy laws which were mainly left on the statutes by the former colonial masters. These were laws that were primarily created to stifle the freedom of the people especially during the independence struggle.”

For Kasoma, the owner of Komboni Radio, the suspension order was only the start of the problems she faces. Kasoma said police assaulted and arrested her when she arrived at Komboni’s office to meet her station manager for a discussion on how best to resume operations.

“What happened to me was inhuman and should not happen to anyone at all. I have suffered physical, mental and psychological torture and my family has not been spared in some of these,” said Kasoma. She appeared in court on October 31 for allegedly resisting arrest and assaulting a policeman.

In her interview with CPJ and other media, Kasoma said she bit an officer in self-defense while being manhandled by him and five of his colleagues, some of whom she alleged were intoxicated. She said she was stripped half-naked, in the presence of members of the community and staff, and was held at a police station until her lawyers freed her on bail. When the assault on Kasoma was raised during parliamentary question time. Vice-President Inonge Wina defended the police, repeating that Kasoma had attacked the officers. Days later Wina apologized to Kasoma in Parliament, saying she had not been apprised of all the facts at the time.

Kasoma’s next court hearing is due to take place November 21.

Local civil society organizations have written to President Lungu about the state of press freedom in Zambia. At a press briefing, Sara Longwe, chair of the Non-Governmental Organizations Coordinating Council, an umbrella body of groups, said there appeared to be a “systematic move towards a one party system” in which only voices seen to praise the ruling party and the state were given space and freedom.

Lungu maintains that he is a “staunch defender” of media freedom. He told a radio station that if he did not believe in media freedom, he would have closed some outlets when he was voted into office. He also defended the action against Muvi TV at a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, saying the broadcasting authority had no choice but to suspend its license because the station was inciting hate speech.