A decision by the Zambian government to close down The Post newspaper is aimed at muzzling the press in the runup to the August 11 general election, according to the publication’s editor, Joseph Mwenda.
The Zambia Revenue Authority, or ZRA, halted operations of the newspaper's printing plant in the capital late Tuesday, and closed down its offices. The revenue authority demanded that the independently-run newspaper immediately pay more than $5 million in back taxes. The dispute goes back to 2014, when the ZRA took the newspaper to court over unpaid taxes.
Mwenda says the shutdown has politics written all over it. He says the move was aimed at ensuring the newspaper — which has been deemed critical of incumbent President Edgar Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front party — is not in circulation before the August 11 presidential, legislative and local elections.
Mwenda says not only is The Post current on its taxes, but the revenue authority failed to give the newspaper the customary 10-day notice of impending action. In addition, attorneys for The Post have previously presented evidence to the court accusing government officials of wanting to muzzle the media company.
"We got some information that they wanted to shut us down because of the independent position that we have taken as a newspaper,” said Mwenda, adding that he had received a call from the deputy minister of finance offering to take care of the ZRA issue if the paper agreed to tone down its writing against the ruling party.
“That's one proof we have that it is really intimidation of the media [and] that they are not after taxes,” Mwenda said. “But we stood our ground. … We continued to report as we have always done.”
He said the ZRA responded by issuing "a warrant of distress of $6.1 million.”
“We told them we have paid this amount of money there in court, but their argument is that they can't access this money,” Mwenda said. “We told them that there is a court order restraining you from shutting us down. But they went straight to our printing press and shut down our machines. … Then, finally, they locked up the place and left the police in charge."
Local media has reported that workers who gathered at the headquarters of the newspaper in Lusaka were dispersed by the police using tear gas.
Supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front back the government action, claiming the paper is biased and fails to report on positive government policies such as improved infrastructure. In addition, they say, the newspaper appears to be doing the bidding of the main opposition United Party for National Development.
Mwenda denies the allegations, saying The Post remains objective.
"What we are saying is the Zambia Revenue Authority should treat us like any other taxpayer out there,” he said. "In fact, from the time this party formed the government, we have paid more taxes than any other company.”