The International Press Institute (IPI) has strongly condemned the decision of Zambian authorities to charge two journalists working for the privately-owned newspaper, The Post, with defaming the country’s President, Edgar Lungu.
Managing editor Joan Chriwa-Ngoma and reporter Mukosha Funga were detained on April 7 and officially charged over a May 2015 article written by Funga that included an allegedly defamatory quote from opposition politician Eric Chanda.
The article reported Chanda’s accusation that President Lungu had used taxpayer money at a holiday resort and quoted the 4th Revolution party leader as saying that Lungu “should be the last person to warn aides against clubbing, because the first assignment he undertook after taking office was to go to Mfuwe to socialize and play pool”.
Following Chanda’s arrest on March 21 over the comments, police also summoned Funga to appear for an interview. Both Funga and Chriwa-Ngoma, who had accompanied her, were warned and cautioned on April 7.
Yesterday, the two journalists, along with Post news editor Joseph Mwenda, again appeared at Lusaka Central Police Station for questioning. Chriwa-Ngoma and Funga were jointly charged with defaming the President and detained for about 30 minutes before being released on bail. Mwenda was warned and cautioned and later released. Chriwa-Ngoma and Funga are set to appear before court, along with Chanda, on April 18.
If convicted, they face a minimum of five and a maximum of seven years in prison under Section 69 of the Zambian Penal Code (Defamation of the President), according to The Post.
Commenting on the incident, Ernest Chanda, executive secretary of the newspaper’s Press Freedom Committee, told IPI: “We are not going to be intimidated. We shall continue to operate freely and professionally.”
IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen sharply criticized the arrest of the two journalists and the defamation charges brought against them.
“Quoting an accusation of financial misconduct by a leading opposition figure against a country’s President is not defamation – it’s reporting news in the public interest,” he said. “This case shows clearly the risk that criminal defamation laws will be abused not only to suppress criticism of those in power, but also to punish media outlets that dare report such criticism.”
“There is no justification in a democracy for defamation laws – particularly criminal defamation laws – that provide special protection to a President or any public official. We urge prosecutors to immediately drop charges against The Post journalists involved in this case and we call on Zambian lawmakers to repeal Section 69 in line with applicable recommendations of numerous international human-rights bodies.”
The charges against Chriwa-Ngoma and Funga follow what appears to be a string of incidents intended to harass or intimidate The Post. In October 2015, a bullet was fired into The Post’s Lusaka newsroom. The bullet travelled through the roof of the newsroom and into the floor, but did not hit any of the four journalists who were present in the offices when the shooting occurred.
In July 2015, criminal charges were brought against Post editor-in-chief Fred M’membe and two reporters for allegedly disclosing classified information in an investigative piece The Post published about corruption in the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party.
M’membe’s case remains in the Zambian High Court and last month was adjourned until May 5. He faces 15 years in prison if convicted. The IPI has urged prosecutors to immediately drop the charges.