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Africa

Zambian paper defies closure by tax authorities

In Zambia, a key independent newspaper has been shut down, allegedly over tax irregularities. But in an election year, critics of President Lungu's government are suspecting political meddling in media freedoms.

On Tuesday (21.06.2016) evening after working hours, agents from the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) with the support of armed police, raided the offices of The Post newspaper in Lusaka and locked down the premises, including the printing press. The authorities say that the newspaper has not paid back taxes amounting to 68 million kwachas ($6 million).

"This is an old dispute about what we owe in taxes. We do not dispute the debt but the amount that the authorities are demanding is much higher than the figure we have come up with," Joan Chirwa (pictured above in the striped shirt), the managing editor of The Post told DW. "That is why we were disputing the debt."

According to Chirwa, the ZRA had ignored a court order that prevented the closure of the newspaper over the debt. When asked why the tax authorities decided to step up its actions against the newspaper now, Chirwa could only speculate.

"The government has not been comfortable with The Post's stance on what has been going on in the government," she said. "We have been quite critical and everybody knows that. It is the role we have been playing since 1991 when the newspaper was established."

Two Post journalists were briefly detained in April in relation to a story reporting that President Edgar Lungu used government funds to pay for a holiday. Last July, Fred M'membe, the publisher of The Post newspaper and another journalist were detained after an article alleged that the president accepted a bribe from a Chinese businessman.

Sambia Lusaka Präsident Edgar Chagwa Lungu

Many Zambians believe that President Lungu is behind the closure of the newspaper

President Edgar Lungu has been in power for about a year after winning a ballot triggered by the death of his predecessor, Michael Sata.

With an election scheduled for early August, Lungu faces a strong challenge from Hakainde Hichilema, head of the opposition United Party for National Development.

Still printing

Even with their offices closed and their printing press locked up, the journalists and editors at The Post have still managed to print the paper, although in a shorter form and a more limited run.

"We are journalists. We can work from anywhere," said Chirwa.

Employees of the paper met in front of their locked offices on Wednesday to distribute copies of the day's paper. Later the police arrived and dispersed the crowds that had gathered.

The newspaper and its leadership have vowed to continue reporting about the critical issues facing the Zambian people. Many readers have expressed support for the newspaper on its website and on social media.

"We have survived because of the support we get from the people," said Chirwa. "The Zambian people want their paper."

Threat to free speech

Rights groups and others have criticized the closure of The Post.

"The shutting down of one of Zambia's main independent newspapers in the run up to an election is an affront to media freedom and the authorities should immediately reverse their decision," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for Southern Africa.

Lee Habasonda, president of Transparency International Zambia, told Reuters that the action taken by ZRA was excessive.

"We are very concerned that such a thing is happening at this time of campaigns for the August 11 elections," he said.

"It is a set back in terms of press freedom in Zambia," Costa Mwansa, Editor in Chief of MuviTV in Zambia, told DW. He added that any government would of course want all businesses to pay their taxes but "such a move being made during an election year feels political."

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