SA National Editors’ Forum condemns the imposition of an extremely severe four months’ jail sentence—with hard labour—on legendary Zambian Editor Fred M’membe of The Post, Zambia’s most popular newspaper, for contempt of court. For many years M’membe and his staff have been attacked by the Zambian authorities for holding them accountable for maladministration and misgovernance.
Despite his lawyer handing into court papers detailing grounds for an appeal and applying for bail, he has been imprisoned since Wednesday, first in the court cells and later in Chimbokaila prison, near Lusaka, infamous for its overcrowding. One of the reasons given for the court’s failure to deal with the bail application was the “indisposition’’ of the magistrate.
Sanef understands that a prison sentence for M’membe’s alleged offence is unduly severe—in the context of the charge, lawyers expected a fine would be imposed.
Sanef calls for his immediate release from jail and for the conviction to be dealt with by the Zambian appeal court.
In convicting M’membe the magistrate David Simusamba confirmed that he was imposing a punitive sentence. He said, in order to “reform the convict and deter others from engaging into such kind of behaviour’‘, it was his considered view that a fine was not appropriate in the case. He added that the offence on which M’membe had been convicted posed a real risk of interfering with the fair administration of justice.
The charge arises from an article published by The Post about an earlier trial of The Post news editor Chansa Kabwela who tried to draw attention to the effects of a strike by hospital staff by sending to the Health minister and other health agencies copies of a picture of a woman rejected by a hospital giving birth in the street. Though she did not publish the material in the paper, she was charged with obscenity. However, she was freed by the magistrate, saying she had no case to answer.
Before that verdict, The Post published a criticism of the trial written by an American Professor Muna Ndulo of Cornell University who described the proceedings as “a comedy of errors’‘. This led to the charge of contempt of court against M’membe.
It is not usual for Sanef to protest against the treatment of journalists in other countries but the action taken against M’membe is so extreme that Sanef believes it is important to condemn it and to draw the attention of the South African Minister of International Affairs to such conduct in a neighbouring member country of the Southern African Development Community. Sanef has noted how Zimbabwe-style constraints on the media have begun to seep into Botswana—where a restrictive Media Practitioners’ Act has been brought into force—and fears that what happens in Zambia today could influence conduct against the media in neighbouring countries and in South Africa