Reporters Without Borders has expressed concerned about growing tension engulfing opposition media after a radio journalist was questioned for reading a listener’s fax on air and newspaper sellers were brutally attacked by presidential party activists.
The press freedom organisation urged the Lusaka police chief, in a letter, not to allow the press to become a scapegoat.
Anthony Mukwita, a freelance journalist, presenter on privately-owned Radio Phoenix and correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, was questioned by state police for one hour on 15 June 2005 for having read out live on 10 June a fax sent by an anonymous listener. Its message was a warning to the government of Levy Mwanawasa against the possibility of a reappearance of the same discontent that motivated a coup attempt in 1997.
An officer from the Lusaka division, accompanied by two detectives, questioned Anthony Mukwita at the offices of the organisation, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). They asked the journalist to give them the fax that had been read out on air and to reveal where it came from. The journalist refused and only agreed to make a written statement in the presence of his lawyer.
On 15 June, Radio Phoenix listeners were particularly stirred by the withdrawal of charges against a former minister in a corruption case. This decision caused a public outcry, all the more so, since from 2002 the government had officially made the struggle against corruption a priority.
This same news was picked up by The Post, a Lusaka-based privately-owned weekly that said in its editorial, "Mr. Levy is a liar and everything linked to his presidency is nothing but fraud, fabrication and lies". On the same day the newspaper was the target of government supporters. The newspaper’s sellers were attacked by a group apparently close to the ruling Multi-Party Democracy party (MDD). The assailants, wielding machetes, seized more than 2,000 copies of the 15 June issue while others shouted out that the weekly had insulted the president.
"The press are often a convenient scapegoat when the political climate in a country deteriorates", Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to the regional police chief in Lusaka, Chendela Musonda.
"The two recent incidents reported in Zambia seem to us worrying in this context. The interrogation of a journalist and the assault on newspaper sellers are signals that we would not like to see repeated. That is why we are asking you, on one hand to ensure that the services that you are in charge of observe the strictest legality in dealings with the press and respect the principle of protection of sources of information. On the other hand, we have noted your actions aimed at punishing the perpetrators of the assaults on the sellers of the Post. We nevertheless ask you to see to it that these investigations are thorough and independent.
"Unless this happens, suspicion which would undoubtedly fall on the Zambian police, could aggravate a situation that is already quite unstable."