From Chabwela Chinondo in Lusaka for TZ Business News.
The Government of Zambia has shut down the privately own popular newspaper, The Post of Zambia, amid general elections campaigns, using a disputed USD 4.8 million tax default as scapegoat. Police used teargas to disperse employees and readers who had gone to the newspaper offices on Wednesday morning, 22 June, 2016 to find out why the newspaper was missing from the streets.
While it is indisputable that the newspaper company owes huge amounts of unpaid tax to the Government, the police raid has attracted sharp criticism from leading opposition leaders.
“We wish to condemn the closure of The Post by the Government in the strongest terms,” said Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND). “This is a blatant attempt to manipulate and suffocate any remaining free-thinking media ahead of elections in 50 days’ time. “While the last truly independent voice among our print media – The Post – has been hounded over the past 18 months (of Lungu’s rule) and now closed.”
The Press Association of Zambia (PAZA) says closing the newspaper was avoidable and called on the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) to find a negotiated settlement over The Post’s tax obligation.
“In this case PAZA believes that it is not in public interest to institute tax collection measures such as seizure of assets that will result in paralyzing operations and closure of the newspaper,” said association president Andrew Sakala. “The newspaper has since its inception 25 years ago played a critical role in the democratic process and governance of the country. It has provided invaluable information to the public and has through its investigative journalism provided checks and balances to successive governments since Zambia’s return to multiparty democracy in 1991.”
Police in Zambia’s capital Lusaka on Wednesday morning fired teargas canisters to disperse employees of The Post and citizens who had gone to find out why there were no copies of the newspaper in the streets. ZRA closed the newspaper on Tuesday, 22 June, 2016 on allegations of unpaid tax of about US $4.8 million.
Officials from the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA), the government body responsible for tax collection raided the newspaper premises in Lusaka around 17:30 local time on Tuesday claiming K53 million (US$4.8 million) in unpaid tax. The government officers then seized all computers and switched off the
printing press before armed police officers were deployed outside the premises.
The private newspaper has been critical of President Edgar Lungu’s government and the ruling Patriotic Front, and some analysts say the shutdown is meant to silence it ahead of the general elections
scheduled for August this year.
The workers gathered outside the offices on Lusaka’s Bwinjimfumu Road in the morning together with some sympathizers who wanted to confirm after noticing that there was no copy on the street. But armed police officers responded by firing teargas at the group, forcing to run away to safety.
During the raid on Tuesday, Fred M’membe, the newspaper proprietor held an unsuccessful meeting with the officials from the ZRA. M’membe refused to make any comment after the raid but referred all queries to President Lungu saying the Head of State was in charge of ZRA.
“Go and ask Edgar Lungu, he is responsible for ZRA, don’t ask me,” M’membe said as he drove off from the company premises.
However, the company’s managing editor Joan Chirwa Ngoma claimed the newspaper company had been granted an injunction by the courts to prevent the officials from confiscating the equipment. She also disputed the K53 million figure being demanded by the ZRA, although she could not disclose the amount of unpaid tax the company concedes.
The ZRA issued a statement last week saying it had won the case against The Post in the Supreme Court but did not mention that it intended to pounce and close the newspaper which has been publishing since 1991.
In November last year, the Lusaka High Court had prevented the revenue authority from confiscating the equipment over the debt. However, in a statement last week, the authority stated the country’s highest court has overturned that judgment.
“The Supreme Court agreed with ZRA that the learned trial judge erred in law, in granting the stay of execution after he had held that The Post, as a tax payer, was supposed to pay its taxes,” stated the ZRA in a statement.
The shutting down of The Post leaves only two national newspapers which are both government owned as well as the Daily Nation which is also perceived to be biased towards the ruling Patriotic Front.