Police in Zambia have detained the top editors of Zambia’s leading newspaper The Post.
Taken into custody were Fred Mmembe, the Post’s editor in chief, his wife Mutinta and deputy managing editor Joseph Mwenda. They were held overnight and say they were beaten and charged with criminal trespassing on a property and uttering a false document. The document was the order issued by the tax appeals court, lifting the closure of the newspaper’s premises over unpaid taxes.
Editors wanted to get back into their offices
The editors say the incident began when they received the document that would allow them back into the newspaper's offices.
“We got a stay from the revenue appeals tribunal restraining the Zambia revenue authority from continuing the siege on our property…when we got that stay we got the ZRA… and they signed acknowledging that they had received it,” said Mwenda.
The editors then took the court order to the Zambian police that were guarding the newspaper offices. “Somewhere along the way the decision was made that we should not be allowed to gain access,” according to Mwenda.
However feeling that they had the law on their side, the editors and other employees of The Post were able to access their offices in Rhodespark, and were in the process of going about their business when police arrested and detained them overnight.
Police would not allow editors to enter their offices
Mwenda said that the police who were guarding their premises appeared to be receiving orders to disregard the tax court injunction from the Zambian president’s office.
“The police officers were getting instructions from the state house, we can prove that and we have reported that as a matter of fact.. and some agents of [the state house] actually came to our premises and were giving orders to the police,” he said.
Photos of the trio made rounds on Zambian social media as they sat on the tarmac outside of their offices.
Editors say they were beaten up
Mwenda said that police and state house agents used brutal force in their arrest.
“When I was leaving the office they grabbed me like a criminal, started beating me up, punching me… and when the editor in chief tried to reason [with the police] they started beating him as well,” said Mwenda.
He said the same treatment was meted out to the editor in chief’s wife who was also beaten and arrested.
“I have bruises on my back,and my eye socket is swollen,” he said.
Editors believe newspaper shutdown was politically motivated
Mwenda believes that the shutdown of the newspaper and the editors' arrest is politically motivated. The newspaper is said to be critical of incumbent President Edgar Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front party. Earlier in the week, President Lungu denied reports that the charges against the newspaper were politically motivated. But Mwenda disagrees, calling the president’s remarks on the case "prejudicial’.
“You cannot say that the judiciary is going to act independently when the president has already given his judgment,” said Mwenda.
Police say editors have to appear in court
Police spokesman Rae Hamoonga told the Reuters News Agency that the three individuals had been charged and released on bond and would have to appear in court next week to face charges of breaking into a building.
The opposition and other independent media watchdogs have accused president Lungu’s government of using repressive laws to restrict the opposition’s access to government controlled media. Jeffery Smith of the Vanguard Africa Movement, an organization working to advance good governance and reform across Africa, said that the recent media clampdown in Zambia is not an isolated issue in the government efforts to roll back democratic strides made over the years.
“The prevailing environment in Zambia would ensure to raise our collective concerns… the hostile rhetoric that we have seen increasing and the dogwhistle threats being made by President Lungu to sort out the opposition, as well as the increasing violence and brutality being inflicted on the [opposition] is very concerning,” said Smith.
Zambia's president has continued to deny the claims that he is going after the opposition, saying the opposition was campaigning freely.
President Lungu has been in power for just over a year and will face opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development at the polls in August.