The members of the International Press Institute (IPI), meeting at their 66th Annual General Assembly during the IPI World Congress on May 20, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany, adopted by unanimous vote a resolution calling on Zambia to end its harassment and persecution targeting independent media, particularly the newspaper The Post and its successor, The Mast.
Zambia has avoided much of the war and instability that marked many other African countries following independence, enjoying a reputation as a leader in respect for democracy and human rights in the region. However, events ahead of and since the August 2016 general election, which saw a marked increase in political violence, cast a troubling shadow over that reputation.
Less than two months before the election, revenue authorities seized the offices and printing presses of Zambia’s leading independent voice, The Post, over disputed tax debts. The raid followed authorities’ refusal to allow the paper to enter into a repayment plan, and authorities later refused to honour a court order to return the assets to The Post. When the paper continued to publish, printing copies at an undisclosed location with content from reporters and editors working in secret, government agents targeted suspected publishers with raids seeking “illegal goods” – copies of The Post – and opened an investigation targeting the paper’s attorneys.
Following the election, the government changed tack, using complaints by four former staffers for unpaid wages to initiate liquidation proceedings, ending the paper’s run in November 2016. Other former staffers were unwilling to surrender and founded a new paper, The Mast. However, like The Post, The Mast must be printed in secret and it enjoys limited distribution. Moreover, the liquidator now seeks The Mast’s dissolution, relying on the unsubstantiated allegation that the paper’s leaders converted Post assets, a claim The Mast and its attorneys deny.
The Post and The Mast are not the only targets of pressure. Despite President Edgar Lungu’s narrow re-election, the government soon revoked the operating licenses of three independent private broadcasters for “[posing] a risk to national peace and security”. The licenses were reinstated after the broadcasters apologised and the government later acknowledged the charge had been related to their perceived bias against Lungu’s party ahead of the election.
IPI members recognised that the 2016 election – in which voters were prevented from receiving news and information from the one major voice not aligned with the ruling party, hindering their ability to make fully informed decisions about their future – represents a step backward for democracy in Zambia, both in terms of the government’s willingness to use pretextual means to silence a persistent critic ahead of an election and the risk that such conduct, as well as the overall spike in violence, could become normalised.
The IPI members called on Zambia’s government to end its pressure on The Mast and allow The Post to reopen, and to allow all media outlets in the country to operate independently. They also urged authorities to respect the vital role of media freedom to democracy, to end political pressure on media in general and to respect the right of Zambia’s citizens to free expression.