Over 20 armed police officers raided the home of Fred M’membe, editor-in-chief of the now-closed newspaper The Post, and arrested his wife Mutinta Mazoka M’membe on Wednesday.
Police arrived at M’membe’s home with a search warrant at around 5 p.m. and arrested his wife after she argued with officers and tore up a warrant they presented. Witnesses also alleged that police roughed up Mazoka M’membe.
According to reports, Mazoka M’membe was detained for two nights at Lusaka Central Police Station and released on bail today. She is expected to appear in court on March 3.
Mazoka M’membe is the proprietor of The Mast newspaper, which was founded late last year after years of official harassment of M’membe’s former paper, The Post, led to its demise. The moves included the seizure of The Post’s offices and printing press over disputed tax bills and proceedings to force it into liquidation.
Former Post managing editor Joan Chirwa, who was in M’membe’s house at the time of Wednesday’s incident, reportedly was prevented from leaving for over 27 hours. She said that police were unable to explain why she was being kept in the house and told her that they were waiting for “their bosses to arrive”.
Speaking to the International Press Institute (IPI) yesterday, Chirwa said of herself and others who were detained at M’membe’s house: “We haven’t committed any crime – the only offence we committed is to be found at the premises of a friend, a colleague at the time.”
Police also tried to prevent the printing of the Mast, reports indicated, but copies of the newspaper remained on sale in the streets of Lusaka yesterday morning.
Meanwhile, a manhunt has been launched for M’membe, who was abroad at the time of the raid. On Tuesday, the Lusaka Magistrate Court issued an arrest warrant for the editor, who is accused of posing as an agent of the Post Newspapers Limited, which is still in liquidation proceedings, concealing Post assets and preventing a handover of the company’s books to the liquidator.
Over a dozen police officers reportedly remain camped outside M’membe’s house.
A Lusaka magistrate also reportedly issued an arrest warrant for M’membe’s lawyer, Nchima Nchito, who has been representing the editor and Post Newspapers. Like M’membe, Nchito is also accused of posing as an agent of Post Newspapers.
In a statement to IPI, M’membe insisted that no assets or property of The Post were at his home. He also blasted the raid, and the arrests of his wife and attorney, as an “unwarranted” use of “police, intelligence officers and the entire state machinery, including State House” to pursue a civil matter.
M’membe commented that it was no secret that he was away from Zambia at the time of the raid and said “the invasion of my home in my absence was and is a cowardly and desperate act”. Labelling the warrant an attempt “to enter, search, intimidate, harass and humiliate my family”, he said that his wife, “just like any humble and respecting citizen should do, complained against this injustice” and was “insulted and assaulted for defending her home”.
IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said that the raid on M’membe’s house and the warrants against him and his lawyer appeared to be the latest incidents in an ongoing campaign to silence M’membe and The Post.
“It is difficult to see the continuing persecution of Fred M’membe as anything but a politically-motivated attempt to silence criticism of President Edgar Lungu’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party and an attack on media freedom in Zambia,” he said. “Zambian authorities should allow this matter to play out in the courts and stop harassing media outlets that seek to expose wrongdoing and ensure government accountability.”
The Post has endured years of harassment in relation to its criticism of governments in Zambia, including threats, arrests, attacks and intimidation. In June 2016, tax authorities claiming that The Post owed sizeable unpaid tax bills seized the paper’s offices and printing press, forcing the employees to leave and locking the premises.
The Post continued printing copies from a clandestine location until November, when a court placed its parent company in liquidation on the application of four former employees who claimed they were owed unpaid wages. Since then, several creditors, including tax authorities and a number of commercial enterprises, have joined the liquidation proceedings against The Post.
In December, a court ordered the start of contempt proceedings against M’membe and The Post for undermining the authority of the court by failing to give the liquidator a list of assets and for allegedly concealing assets and property. M’membe is currently contesting that proceeding, as well as the liquidation order.