Twenty-three veteran journalists from across the world have written to president Rupiah Banda urging the government to overturn a four-month jail sentence imposed on Post newspaper editor Fred M’membe.
In a letter sent to Zambian President Rupiah Banda on Thursday, 23 International Press Institute (IPI) World Press Freedom Heroes urged the Zambian authorities to reverse, on appeal, Mr M’membe’s 4 June conviction on contempt of court charges – which led to a four-month prison sentence with hard labour. Mr M’membe, who is also an IPI World Press Freedom Hero, is currently free on bail pending the outcome of the appeal.
The conviction of Mr M’membe stemmed from a sequence of events that began a year ago when The Post news editor Chansa Kabwela sent pictures of a woman giving birth in the street to the Zambian Health Minister and other officials in an effort to draw attention to the consequences of a nurses’ strike. Kabwela was charged with distributing obscene materials. In November, a Lusaka magistrate found that Kabwela had no case to answer – a decision IPI welcomed as a press freedom victory.
Meanwhile, however, Fred M’membe and The Post had been charged with contempt of court for publishing an op-ed by Cornell University Law Professor Muna Ndulo calling the case against Kabwela a “comedy of errors.”
On Friday 4 June, Mr. M’membe, The Post and Mr. Ndulo were found guilty of contempt. Mr. M’membe spent a weekend in Lusaka central prison before being released on bail.
A copy of the letter is reproduced below:
H.E. President Rupiah Banda
P.O. Box 30135
RE: The Case against Fred M’membe, Owner of The Post, Zambia
Vienna, 8 July, 2010
Dear President Banda,
We, 23 International Press Institute (IPI) World Press Freedom Heroes, are writing today to voice our concern at the recent sentencing of The Post newspaper editor – and fellow IPI World Press Freedom Hero – Fred M’membe to four months in prison with hard labour.
As IPI World Press Freedom Heroes, we have been honoured by IPI for our courage and resilience in fighting for press freedom.
We note that Mr. M’membe’s sentence comes against the backdrop of government pressure on the independent media in Zambia – evident in the lawsuits that the Department of Public Prosecutions has brought against The Post and Fred M’membe over the past year.
President Banda, we would like to respectfully remind you that a truly independent media – sometimes raucous and critical– is a cornerstone of any democracy. Journalists should be permitted to publish and broadcast freely without fear of retribution.
Mr. M’membe and The Post were charged with contempt after the newspaper ran an opinion-editorial piece by Cornell University Professor Muna Ndulo, which viewed an ongoing obscenity case against The Post news editor Chansa Kabwela as “a comedy of errors.”
As IPI said at the time, the case against Chansa Kabwela appears to have been politically motivated. Ms. Kabwela was charged with “distributing obscene materials” after she posted two photos of a woman giving birth in the street to the health minister and other public officials. The photos were attached to a letter, and were intended to draw attention to the consequences of a nurses’ strike.
Although the photos are difficult to look at, particularly in the knowledge that the child later died, they certainly do not constitute “pornography” – as the magistrate determined when he ruled that Ms. Kabwela had no case to answer. Despite this positive outcome, the obscenity charge against Ms. Kabwela appeared to be another effort to harass and intimidate staff members of The Post.
The contempt law under which Mr. M’membe was charged can be found in Chapter 87, Section 116 (1.)(d.) of the Zambian Penal Code, which states that any person who “makes use of any speech of writing” that is “capable of prejudicing any person in favour of or against any parties to such proceeding” is subject to imprisonment for up to six months.
We find the magistrate’s interpretation of this law to be damaging, because it suggests that any journalist who reports on an ongoing trial could be imprisoned for contempt. The law also opens itself to misuse because, as this and other contempt cases against Fred M’membe have shown, it can be used to target critical media.
Therefore, we respectfully urge the judiciary to reverse Mr. M’membe’s conviction on appeal.
Lastly, we urge your government to pass amendments to the Zambian constitution that would enshrine the rights of free expression and press freedom. The constitution should contain protections for the media that are at least as robust as those proposed in the Mung’omba draft constitution.
As journalists and IPI World Press Freedom Heroes, many of us have been imprisoned, attacked and even tortured for our work. The price we have paid in the struggle for press freedom has at times been great, but the price our countries will pay without press freedom is greater still. We urge you to respect the right and duty of Zambian journalists to transmit news and a diversity of opinion.
Thank you for your kind attention to this matter.
IPI’s World Press Freedom Heroes:
Kenneth Best, Liberia
Lydia Cacho, Mexico
Juan Pablo Cardenas, Chile
May Chidiac, Lebanon
Viet Hoat Doan, Vietnam
Harold Evans, United Kingdom
Akbar Ganji, Iran
Amira Hass, Israel
Kemal Kurspahic,(former)Bosnia and Herzegovina
Daoud Kuttab, Palestine
Gwen Lister, Namibia
Savea Sano Malifa, Samoa
Veran Matic, (former) Yugoslavia
Adam Michnik, Poland
Nizar Nayyouf, Syria
Pius Njawe, Cameroon
Raul Rivero, Cuba
Pap Saine, The Gambia
Faraj Sarkuhi, Iran
Nedim Sener, Turkey
Arun Shourie, India
Ricardo Uceda, Peru
Jose Ruben Zamora, Guatemala