Zambian authorities use tax law to silence opposition newspaper – The Guardian

Zambia’s leading newspaper, The Post, was shut down in June by order of the revenue authorities over alleged tax debts. And ahead of a crucial election, the influential daily – noted for its criticisms of the government led by President Edgar Lungu – is still unable to publish. Steven M Ellis, director of advocacy and communications at the International Press Institute, takes up the story…

If a man is accused of a crime, do you hang him and wait for the judicial system to sort out whether he did it? The question seems farcical, but that’s the situation facing Zambia’s daily paper, The Post.

It is the country’s only mass media outlet with a history of scrutinising both the government and the opposition. Yet a week away from elections (on 11 August), in which voters will decide the fate of the president and whether to adopt a new bill of rights, the Post’s offices and printing press remain shuttered.

They were seized by the Zambia revenue authority (ZRA), and it is hard not to conclude that it was a politically motivated attempt to silence the paper by the president, Edgar Lungu, and his ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party.

The seizure was ostensibly intended to collect 53.9m kwacha (approximately £4m) in allegedly unpaid VAT receipts and employee income tax remittances.

The Post disputes the bill, arguing that it was incorrectly calculated and failed to credit previous payments. Although Zambia’s supreme court is currently considering whether the ZRA was justified in refusing to accept The Post’s request to pay the bill in instalments, it overruled a high court order preventing the agency from immediate collection of the money, hence the seizure.

While the case was pending, the ZRA issued a further bill for 101.8m kwacha, which the paper also disputed. It turned to Zambia’s revenue appeals tribunal to determine what it actually owed and last month, the tribunal directed the ZRA to allow the paper to resume operations. But the ZRA ignored the order.

Instead, the Post’s editor and co-founder, Fred M’membe, was arrested along with his wife and the paper’s deputy managing editor. The three, allegedly beaten during the altercation, were released after being charged with criminal trespass and uttering a forged document.

The political nature of the ZRA’s move can be seen in its failure to collect from media outlets sympathetic to the PF, many of which are subsidised by taxpayers. A spokesman for Lungu acknowledged during a recent meeting with IPI delegates that other media outlets were given special treatment.

For now, The Post is continuing to publish a limited number of copies of an abbreviated daily edition from a secret location. But it is unclear how long it can hold out.

Government agents have raided printing houses suspected of publishing the paper and intimidated others who might dare to do so.

Armed police recently raided the home of a Post staffer at midnight, searching for copies of the Post. The next day, Post employees fled their open-air newsroom outside the paper’s shuttered offices when police refused to protect them from arriving busloads of PF supporters.

Such actions dovetail with a reported strategy to deny media coverage to the opposition and to block coverage of any criticism of the government. In June, a leaked document surfaced purporting to outline a PF strategy to neutralise The Post.

It is important to note that The Post and M’membe have not refused to pay taxes that are owing. They simply ask the ZRA to work with them to reconcile the amount. But the ZRA has declined. Why?

Clearly, the case against The Post is not about taxes. If it was, the paper would be operating at full capacity, generating vital tax revenue while the amount it owes is determined. But it is not.

Under the circumstances, and amid a disturbing rise in political violence and pressure on media ahead of the elections, the case should alarm all those who care about democracy, both in Zambia and beyond.

The sad truth is that voters in Zambia, which has long been regarded as a beacon in the region for democracy and human rights, are being prevented from receiving news and information they need to make a fully informed decision about their future.

If the effort succeeds, it will send a powerful message to others who would misuse state authority to subvert democracy.

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