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Locked out, beaten, in hiding, but Zambia Post still printing ahead of elections
Producing a newspaper while trying to evade arrest has kept news editor and deputy managing editor Joseph Mwenda on his toes since the Zambian government shut the Post newspaper down in June, citing tax fraud. The newspaper still manages to operate, on a shoestring budget, in an undisclosed location.
“There is a bounty on my head and the state agents are all over the city, looking for where I am, where I’m working from with my staff. It’s been very rough,” Mwenda tells RFI, after changing interview location after he was tipped off that he would be arrested.
In order to evade detention, news editor Mwenda works in one location, Post journalists in another. The paper is designed in one part of town, printed in another. Only Mwenda knows the whole operation.
“That way, if they manage to find where the printing plates are made, at least we are safe with where the newspaper is printed. If they find out where we are as journalists, then they won’t find out where the newspaper is being designed.”
The saga of producing a leading zambian newspaper in secret
The Post’s troubles with the current Zambian government have intensified with election coverage, says Mwenda.
A recent front page Post photo showed Zambian police officers posing with handmade signs supporting the opposition party. Inspector General of Police Kakoma Kanganja held a press conference to state that the police would be found and disciplined.
“Instead of doing that so they could rectify the problem, they started looking for the journalists. Now they feel they can’t find those police officers unless they capture me or they capture any of my colleagues who have been working on that story,” says Mwenda.
Tax or politics?
The Post was initially closed down on 22 June by the Zambia Revenue Authority for non-payment of 68 million kwatcha (5.8 million euros) in back taxes.
Although the Zambia High Court authorised the reopening of the Post and its accounts to facilitate payment of back taxes, the revenue authority refused, says Mwenda.
The action is more political than fiscal, he claims.
The Post was temporarily reopened the next week.
“That very night, the police came, more than 50 police officers. They threw teargas in my office, beat me like they were beating a common criminal” along with other staff, says the Post editor.
The United States and the European Union condemned the paper’s closing at the time.
“They have waged a war against a newspaper that is defenceless. We don’t have arms, I can’t even fire a weapon,” he says, adding that the Post, in its 25 years of operation, has never seen this kind of aggression from government.
The Post also revealed that the state had hired Israeli electioneering company Timor Consulting, publishing not only the letter engaging their services but another letter from Timor Consulting advising the government how to handle The Post's coverage of their working relationship.
“President [Lungu] wrote a letter to Chief of Intelligence that he should work with this company from Israel to ensure that the ruling party retains power. Now, that’s a problem. Our office of the president is not a party function,” says Mwenda.
Mwenda has had to use his own tactics to evade arrest.
“I change clothes three times a day. I have to change cars. I’m saying this because my fellow journalists out there have to know that practising journalism here in Zambia is not easy,” he says, adding that this will not end on Thursday with the elections.
“For me, as a journalist, it’s one day at a time, until I’m able to say I’m safe, I can get out of hiding, get my family back to my house, because they are in hiding, and continue to lead a normal life,” says Mwenda.