- Opposition say move is government attempt to stifle free press
- Police fire teargas at Post reporters selling newspaper
The Zambian Revenue Authority closed the country’s most-read privately-owned newspaper over disputed tax arrears and police fired teargas Wednesday at reporters selling the publication outside its office in the capital, Lusaka.
The Post, in a statement on its Facebook page, said officers from the tax authority arrived at the newsroom at 5 p.m. Tuesday and demanded the immediate payment of 68 million kwacha ($6.2 million). The officials, who the Post said were operating under instructions from the president’s office, switched off the printing presses and locked up the building, according to the statement.
The 25-year-old Post is Zambia’s longest running privately owned newspaper, has the widest circulation and is often critical of the government. Opposition parties condemned the action, accusing the government of trying to stifle press freedom ahead of presidential polls scheduled for Aug. 11. President Edgar Lungu has led Africa’s second-biggest copper producer since narrowly winning a snap election in January 2015 after Michael Sata died in office.
“The sudden departure of a major media outlet has left many Zambians incredulous, with some questioning whether the closure of the Post was engineered to help the incumbent president, Edgar Lungu, secure another term in office,” Nick Branson, senior researcher at the Africa Research Institute in London, said by e-mail.
A call to the presidency’s spokesman didn’t connect, while a second one wasn’t answered.
“This is a blatant attempt to manipulate and suffocate any remaining free-thinking media ahead of elections,” Hakainde Hichilema, the leader of the United Party for National Development and Lungu’s main challenger, said in an e-mailed statement. “President Lungu should know that a free press is a vital lifeline in any country.”
The race between Hichilema and Lungu is too close to call at this stage, according to Branson. It takes place against a backdrop of inflation that’s soared to more than 20 percent, while economic growth has slowed to the lowest rate since 1998. The economy will expand by close to 3 percent this year from 3.2 percent in 2015, according to the World Bank.
“My own first reaction was that its closure should be read as a political action, detrimental to democratic pluralism, and was an ill-advised action based on political fear,” Stephen Chan, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said in reply to e-mailed questions. “We, on the outside, have always viewed Zambia as a rare beacon of robust but fair electoral contests. I very much want Zambia to live up to this extraordinary reputation.”