Reporters Without Borders today accused Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa of abusing his authority in having Fred M’membe, the editor of the country’s only privately-owned newspaper, The Post, arrested and prosecuted for criticising him in an editorial.
“In countries such as Zambia where the laws criminalize press offences, the powerful enjoy the arbitrary right to have any journalist thrown in prison at will,” the press freedom organisation said. “This is both archaic and outrageous. If the president can publicly criticise M’membe without going to prison, M’membe should have the right to question the president’s policies without being treated like a bandit.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We call on the judges who hear the case of M’membe versus Mwanawasa to act with composure and fairness and to acquit M’membe.”
M’membe was charged with libelling the president and detained when he surrendered to the police at Kabwata police station at midday on 8 November. His shoes, belt and watch were confiscated and he was put in a cell with three ordinary detainees. He was finally released on bail at the end of the day and was due to appear in court the next day.
The police had taken deployed extraordinary resources in an effort to arrest M’membe on the morning of 8 November after he was unable to report to the police station the day before in response to a summons, although he had let it be known that he would go on 8 November. Instead of waiting for him to show up, the police launched a “manhunt,” according to a member of The Post’s management, Amos Malupenga, surrounding the premises of the newspaper and raiding M’membe’s home.
M’membe’s offence was to have run an editorial in the newspaper’s 7 November issue in which he condemned the president’s “foolishness, stupidity and lack of humility” and questioned his ability to govern in a more rational fashion. “We say this because it is very difficult for us to understand how a man can erupt like a volcano when a simple, humble and honest advice is given to him,” the editorial said.
Zambia has in recent weeks been shaken by a political crisis over a proposed new constitution. Thousands of demonstrators demonstrated outside parliament on 1 November to press for the new constitution to be adopted before presidential elections in 2006 in which Mwanawasa is expected to seek another term. Mwanawasa has said Zambia does not have the resources to promulgate a new constitution before then.
The day before The Post’s critical editorial, Mwanawasa had publicly criticised M’membe and accused him of harbouring political ambitions. “Every day, it concentrates its attacks on me,” the president said, referring to The Post. “I am incapable, I am inefficient, I lack capacities, I must be kicked out, I am arrogant, and so forth. Their energy should be directed towards persuading people to register en masse so that they can vote me out, because if they don’t, I will surely come back.”