How Lungu schemed to shut down a critical newspaper

1
282

In the evening of Tuesday June 21, 2016, the Zambian government closed down an independent daily tabloid, The Post on a cooked up tax bill of about $5 million.

The government used the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) to silence the newspaper, which had been critical of government’s grand corruption and abuse of public resources. The paper was also a popular platform for those with dissenting views. The timing of the closure was certainly a well-calculated scheme in that it was a time when the next day’s edition was about to be printed. Besides, it was only less than two months to a general election, and most stakeholders depended on the newspaper for alternative news.

The Post was published by Post Newspapers Limited, which Fred M’membe and others co-founded on July 26, 1991. M’membe later became its editor-in-chief and managing director. Before its closure, The Post had been the country’s most politically outspoken newspaper throughout its 25-year existence. Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda had his fights with the newly founded weekly newspaper then, although he never advocated for its closure. His successor, Frederick Chiluba equally disliked the newspaper’s criticism of his government. He many times unleashed police on The Post staff, including arresting M’membe several times, but never closed it.

Chiluba’s successor Levy Mwanawasa also faced criticism from the newspaper over many governance issues. It was under Mwanawasa’s reign in March 2005 that M’membe was arrested and charged with defamation of the president, a criminal offence under Zambian law that carries a five-year jail term. The state however entered a nolle prosequi in the matter. Mwanawasa later realised that his administration and the newspaper were fighting a common enemy – corruption. He therefore called for a serious probe into Chiluba’s 10-year rule. And the first casualty was Chiluba’s press aide, Richard Sakala who was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced five years for corruption. Sakala is the current proprietor of the Daily Nation, a newspaper that has laundered itself to the current administration.

In March 2009, then Republican president Rupiah Banda warned at a news conference in Lusaka that he would ensure that The Post was closed. That statement put clearly his intentions against the newspaper, chiefly because it was the only critical voice at the time that his government failed to suppress. Banda’s predecessor Levy Mwanawasa had earlier on embarked on a vicious anti-corruption fight. Mwanawasa scored the highest when he took Chiluba to court for corruption. And this shocked Chiluba who had handpicked Mwanawasa, while it brought joy to his critics. Corruption under the Chiluba administration had become endemic, especially between 1996 and 2001.

After Mwanawasa died in August 2008, his vice-president, Banda succeeded him after narrowly beating his closest rival Michael Sata in a presidential election held on October 30 the same year. Banda’s presidency was characterised mainly by a serious compromise on the fight against corruption that Mwanawasa had earlier spearheaded. Banda spoke publicly that he hoped the courts would acquit Chiluba and criticised the idea of taking former presidents to court. And when the Lusaka magistrate’s court acquitted Chiluba in August 2009, Banda celebrated publicly. A lot of other corruption suspects were acquitted under questionable circumstances. This put Banda and his team in The Post’s firing range. The newspaper provided a platform to many members of the public who felt that the fight against corruption that Mwanawasa started had been dealt a huge blow. Since then, the newspaper crossed paths with the Banda administration that had seemingly institutionalised corruption.

When Sata defeated Banda in September 2011 after a fiercely contested election, he showed political will on fighting corruption. Banda was investigated and taken to court over a government-to-government oil deal he and his son Henry had sourced from Nigeria. But after Sata’s death, Banda found a strong ally in Edgar Lungu who politically helped him secure an acquittal. When Lungu became president in January 2015, The Post published an expose detailing demands Banda made to Lungu when the former supported the latter during campaigns. Among those demands were the removal of the Sata-appointed chief state prosecutor Mutembo Nchito, closure of The Post, and Banda’s acquittal. During campaigns in Lusaka’s Mandevu constituency in January 2015, Lungu vowed to deal with The Post if it continued with what he termed unprofessional reporting. So when he won the election, Lungu further vowed to fall on his critics like “ a ton of bricks.”

On the other hand, in the run up to the 2016 general election, The Post published another expose about some Malawian nationals on the Zambia/Malawi border that some government officials, in collusion with the Electoral Commission of Zambia, had registered as voters. The author of that story went as far as interviewing Malawians on the border towns who confirmed registering in Zambia as voters. This angered Lungu and everyone in the ruling party, as well as Electoral Commission of Zambia officials. And while Sata was seriously sick in September 2014, The Post published a story from a recording where then finance minister Alexander Chikwanda gave instructions to ZRA officials to deal with the newspaper. The story followed a raid on the newspaper by ZRA officials, demanding in advance amounts that were going to be due in a few days’ time.

On the day of closure, ZRA officers, under instructions from Lungu, arrived at Post Newspapers head office in Lusaka’s Rhodes Park area at about 5 pm in the company of armed police officers, demanding that the company paid a total of K68 million (US$6.1 million) disputed tax arrears immediately. 
This was in total disregard of a High Court order the newspaper had obtained earlier in the day against the closure. The paper continued publishing secretly with reduced pagination. Ruling party supporters grabbed copies of The Post from street vendors on a daily basis, despite it not being a banned publication.

According to the country’s tax law, the taxpayer has the right to dispute figures they are not comfortable with and seek a reconciliation of such figures with the tax authorities. But ZRA refused to entertain that and went ahead with the closure. The team shut down the newspaper’s head office and the printing press in the industrial area. All employees were ordered to vacate the offices as police officers brandished AK 47 assault rifles all over the premises. This was followed by sustained state-sponsored propaganda in both the government-controlled print and electronic media, and private media outlets sympathetic with the ruling party, that the closure was about taxes.

On June 27, The Post obtained an order from the Tax Appeals Tribunal, compelling ZRA to reopen the offices and give back all assets it had seized from the company, while the Tribunal was determining the matter. When Post lawyers, M’membe and news editor Joseph Mwenda tried to enforce the order in the evening of the same day by reopening the offices, State House mobilised police officers that rushed to the area. The officers beat up M’membe, his wife Mutinta, and Mwenda, and made them sit on the road in the cold of the night. This was a Tribunal order that was earlier recognised and consented to by ZRA lawyers. M’membe and his colleagues were later in the night locked up in police cells before they were released on police bond the following day. To date, the trio has not been charged with anything.

The tax case against The Post is certainly the result of political pressure by Lungu to silence his critics. Firstly, the government used five former Post employees to file for liquidation when the amount they were claiming was far less than $70, 000 in total. Besides, they had never written to the company claiming those amounts, neither did the newspaper refuse to pay them their terminal benefits. Secondly, the judge appointed to preside over this case, Sunday Nkonde, has personal issues with the newspaper. In 2009, judge Nkonde initiated a closure of The Post, on the pretext that his client, Finance Bank, from which The Post had in the past obtained a loan and was servicing it, instructed him. It later emerged that the bank never gave judge Nkonde such instructions. Thirdly, judge Nkonde has allowed the provisional liquidator, Lewis Mosho to start the liquidation process despite Post lawyers challenging the matter in his court. By law, a provisional liquidator is simply a caretaker charged with the responsibility of keeping company assets intact until the matter is exhausted in a court of law. Fourthly, judge Nkonde has never granted any exparte orders to Post lawyers in this matter, but has granted every other order to Mosho and his agents. And lastly, judge Nkonde has allowed Mosho to auction company assets while the matter is still being challenged in court. On April 22, this year Mosho auctioned several company assets, including trucks. This is a total disregard of the rule of law and a clear show of bias and intent to annihilate The Post.

After the five former employees filed for liquidation of The Post in the Lusaka High Court on November 3, 2016, The Mast newspaper was born. The paper has also suffered serious state persecution: government institutions have been told never to subscribe to or advertise in The Mast. At inception late last year, ruling Patriotic Front (PF) supporters were grabbing copies of The Mast from vendors on the streets of Lusaka. The purpose was to ensure that the paper never reached many readers.

In March this year, Mosho obtained an arrest warrant against M’membe and his advocate Nchima Nchito, claiming that they were personating as The Post’s proprietor and legal counsel respectively. Further, police dismantled a small personal printing press installed in M’membe’s yard that was used to print The Mast. M’membe’s wife, Mutinta who is also a shareholder in Oracle Media Productions, the publishers of The Mast, was arrested and brutalised while her husband was out of the country. Despite plenty opportunities for growth, state operatives try by any means to ensure that The Mast does not grow. In April this year, Mosho wrote to The Mast, accusing them of converting Post assets to their name and demanded about $600, 000 or face liquidation. Shareholders wrote back and told him that his claim was a pure lie.

Many members of the public, including some PF supporters have realised that the closure of The Post was not about taxes, but a political scheme. Recently, Lungu’s former minister and a member of the ruling party’s central committee, Mwenya Musenge warned the President about the many fights he had picked with The Post, the church, various individuals and organisations. Musenge said such fights were not in the best interest of the party and the country. According to PF insiders, this closure has been a project initiated by Lungu and carried out by his appointees at State House. It is often said that truth cannot be suppressed continuously; one day it is bound to surface. And the truth behind the closure of The Post will certainly be too visible to ignore.

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here