Zambia shuts down newspaper in tax dispute

Zambia’s Revenue Authority recently shut down one of the country’s independent newspapers for tax debt. Analysts see the move as politically motivated and meant to muzzle the media ahead of general elections in August.

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA (REUTERS) – Zambia’s tax authorities have shut down a newspaper critical of the government, accusing it of failing to pay taxes.

The Post’s managing editor Joan Chirwa said Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) officials had ignored a court order preventing its closure over a disputed debt of 68 million kwachas (6 million U.S. dollars).

She said the newspaper had been closed because of its critical editorial policy.

Tax agency officials were not available to comment.

“I mean, for them not to want to listen and treat this as a pure business transaction clearly shows that there is politics involved,” Chirwa said.

In April, police briefly detained two Post journalists over a story quoting an opposition leader as saying President Edgar Lungu had used public funds to pay for a holiday, in a further sign of rising political tension ahead of August elections.

Lungu has been in power for just over a year after winning a ballot triggered by the death of his predecessor, Michael Sata, in October 2014.

He faces a strong challenge from opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development at the polls.

Critics say that with the series of arrests, Lungu is trying to intimidate opponents ahead of the elections.

“What is the motivation? It’s corruption, it’s to rig elections. The Post newspaper has been reporting these issues, so closing down The Post using state institutions is reminiscent, it is a sign of dictatorship, a brutal regime that is afraid of exiting from office because citizens are fed up with poor delivery. So, it is unacceptable in today’s world to close down a media organisation,” Hichilema said in an interview.

Lee Habasonda, president of Transparency International Zambia, said the action taken by ZRA was a move to muzzle the media and puts to question the motives of the government ahead of elections in August.

“We think that this will reduce transparency of government actions and I do think that the international community, the Zambian people and all the observers clearly see that the actions of government are only intended to pursue political capital rather that treat Zambians fairly. While The Post may have obligations, which we hear they have actually met already, we think that government must treat all citizens fairly,” he said.

Zambia’s electoral commission has threatened to bar campaigning ahead of elections due to growing cases of violence, after clashes between supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front party and the main opposition United Party for National Development.

Lungu earlier this year accused political opponents of training a militia to carry out violence during the elections.

On the streets, some say the closure of The Post just adds to rising tensions in the country.

“People are very affected by this move and totally think it’s a political act, given the fact that in August we will be having our elections, it is very vital that The Post should be open because people need to be expressing themselves at this moment,” said student, Carol Chilufya.

Zambia is Africa’s second biggest copper producer but its economy has been hit by falling world demand, primarily due to a slowdown in China. Critics blame Lungu for a weakening currency that has lost about 20 percent since April.