Zambian police in the early hours of Tuesday arrested Fred M’membe, editor of the country’s largest independent daily, The Post, a day after a tribunal granted a restraining order in favour of the newspaper in a tax dispute proceeding.
Reports said authorities also arrested Mr. M’membe’s wife, Mutinta, and Joseph Mwenda, a deputy editor with The Post.
The arrests came a week after The Post’s offices were taken over by operatives of Zambia Revenue Authorities on allegations that the 25-year-old publication had defaulted on its taxes to the tune of $6 million.
The government said it was carrying out a June 13 ruling of the Supreme Court which ordered The Post to pay all its back taxes.
But Mr. M’membe last Wednesday said his paper had paid a large chunk of the taxes to government coffers, adding that the remaining, over which they had approached a court for reconciliation of figures, was not significant enough to justify the an absolute takeover of its facilities.
Mr. M’membe and his colleagues said the government shut down their newspaper because of its staunch criticism of President Edgar Lungu’s government.
The journalists also said Mr. Lungu was trying to suppress critical voices to pave way for his victory in the upcoming general election due in August.
The police have been in charge of security in the paper’s offices since last week, but the paper has continued to publish daily, albeit with significant reduction in its circulation.
On Monday, the Tax Appeals Tribunal, which sits on tax disputes in the country, granted an ex-parte order for The Post offices to be reopened and all the properties seized during the repossession be returned. The Post posted a snapshot of what appeared like a court judgement on its Facebook page.
The police reportedly arrested and assaulted Mr. M’membe, his wife and Mr. Mwenda when the trio arrived at their office with the court order. They were later driven to the police post in Lusaka. Pictures that allegedly captured the brutality were circulated on the Internet.
Amos Chanda, Zambian government spokesman, said Mr. Lungu was not behind The Post’s tax case, which, he said, had lingered for 10 years. He, however, defended the actions of the ZRA.
Mr. Chanda said the government would cease action against The Post immediately the paper clears its debt.
“If they pay taxes now at 11:33 (a.m.) and 11:34 Zambian Revenue Authorities would release the assets of the Post Newspapers,” Mr. Chanda said in an interview with Radio France International Tuesday.
Mr. Chanda also rejected the claims by The Post newspapers and editors that the paper was being deliberately targeted as part of the administration’s campaign strategy to stifle critical voices, saying the “accusations are reasonable and without foundation.”
“There’s no law in this country that exempts critical voices from paying taxes,” Mr. Chanda said.
The crisis has drawn the attention of pro-democracy campaigners and civic groups from within and outside the country.
Jeffrey Smith, an African affairs analyst, said Mr. Lungu could not completely absolve himself from ongoing standoff between The Post and tax officials.
Mr. Smith, Executive Director of the Vanguard Africa Movement, an organization working to advance good governance and reform across the continent, told PREMIUM TIMES the development was part of an elaborate approach by Mr. Lungu to suffocate dissenting voices before the elections.
“The closure of The Post Newspaper is clearly part of a more systemic and sinister effort to tilt the playing field in the ruling Patriotic Front’s favor.
“The assault on press freedom is concerning on its own, but when placed in the broader context of other concerns in the country — including the registering of thousands of foreign nationals and serious questions about the validity of the electoral register, the hostile rhetoric being espoused by President Lungu against the political opposition, as well as the increasing incidents of political violence — and we have serious reason to believe that this election will not be free or fair by any reasonable standard,” Mr. Smith said.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA, called on Zambian authorities to reopen the newspaper.
In a statement signed by Hellen Mwale, the chairperson of MISA in Zambia, the group said, “political leaders must know that this decision to close the Post Newspaper, in addition to political violence, restriction of fundamental freedoms of association, expression and movement undermine the holding of a free, fair and peaceful election.”
Amnesty International also condemned the shutdown of the newspaper, calling on Zambian authorities to reopen it immediately.
“The shutting down of one of Zambia’s main independent newspapers in the run-up to an election is an affront to media freedom and the authorities should immediately reverse their decision.” the human rights organisation said in a statement by its Southern African director, Deprose Muchena.
The row was not the first time President Lungu and his country’s press would clash since he assumed office in January 2015.
In July 2015, Mr. M’membe and a reporter, Mukosha Funga, were arrested on accusation that they disclosed classified documents, an allegation that they denied.
This April, two journalists were reportedly detained for a short period before they were released after posting a bail.