This is the darkest hour in Zambian Media-MISA Namibia

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) says it is deeply concerned about the recent harassments of The Post newspaper in Zambia, worsened by the prosecution and detention of the newspaper’s editor in chief Fred M’membe, according to statement signed by its regional director Kaitira Kandjii who is based in Namibia

On 5 June 2010, M’membe was sentenced to a four-month jail term with hard labour following his conviction by Magistrate David Simusamba on 3 June 2010 on one count of contempt of court charge under Section 116 (1) (d) (i) of the Penal Code Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia. In a bizarre addition to the verdict, the judge also sentenced the newspaper itself to four months in prison. This sentence will also be applied to M’membe, but will be served concurrently with his own sentence.

On 7 June 2010 at 11h00 M’membe was released from detention following his successful application for bail. His legal representatives are currently preparing an appeal against the ruling to the High Court. M’membe prosecution arose from an opinion article published in The Post of 27 August 2009, authored by US-based Zambian Law Professor Muna Ndulo. The article, titled ‘The Chansa Kabwela case: a comedy of errors’ was published as the The Post’s news editor, Chansa Kabwela, was being prosecuted on charges of circulating obscene photographs contrary to section 177 of the Penal Code of the Laws of Zambia. In a turn of events, the Zambian government filed contempt of court charges against the newspaper’s editor Fred M’membe. Kabwela has since been acquitted of all charges.

MISA views the prosecution and detention of M’membe as a deafening attack on media freedom and freedom of expression. This is indeed one of the darkest hours in Zambian media history. MISA’s regional secretariat and its 11 chapters throughout southern Africa, outrightly reject the judgement by Magistrate Simusamba and regard it as a betrayal of media freedom and freedom of expression. While passing the Judgement Magistrate David Simusamba said “the sentence is meant to reform M’membe as well as to deter would-be offenders after him”. These words are a threat to every Zambian and are meant to instill fear.

The Post newspaper has been a major critic to Zambia’s bad governance and its prosecution is a sign by the Zambian government to avenge dissenting voices. It is disturbing to note that The Post and M’membe are being prosecuted for giving a platform to a citizen to express himself on an issue of public concern. The Zambian media has a responsibility to publish and broadcast news and information and in this case The Post had the right to publish an opinion article by Professor  Ndulo. The fact that the Kabwela’s case was before the Court did not override the rights of people to express their opinions about the ongoing trial. It was a matter of public knowledge, interest and dialogue.

It should also be noted, that the Zambian Penal code under which M’membe and The Post are being prosecuted is archaic. Its content emanates from ideologies of the former colonial regime and such sentiments should not have any root in the modern society which claims an independent judiciary. The penal code is draconian and includes abusive legislation which by their very nature are intended to silence public voices.

MISA hopes and trusts that the Zambian High Court would not neglect these facts in its analysis of M’membe’s case.

MISA still calls on the Zambian government to respect media freedom and freedom of expression as guaranteed by international instruments such as the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Declaration of Principle on Freedom of Expression in Africa as well as the Windhoek Declaration which Zambia as a country has ratified.

MISA has also noted that Zambia has since obliterated the guarantee for Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in its constitution and international tools and thus reflects bad examples to other SADC countries. MISA calls on the Zambian Government to relook on its relationship with the media and stop viewing the media as enemy. The media is a watchdog of democracy and good governance and therefore should be allowed to report freely on any issue of public concern without fear.

MISA views the judgement against M’membe and The Post as unjust. We share a principled stance with M’membe and The Post that the media is an avenue through which citizens seek, receive and impart information and ideas ‘regardless of frontiers’. We therefore pledge solidarity as we await the outcome of the appeal. Furthermore, we call on Zambian citizens to be vocal in their denunciation of the treatment received by M’membe and The Post. It is our view that an attack against media freedom is an attack against the most vital and basic human right of every citizen, i.e. the right to express ourselves freely.

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