- Fred M'membe, editor and owner of Zambia's independent newspaper 'The Post', has been sentences to a four-month prison sentence with hard labour over "contempt of court", causing colleagues to protest the "harsh" ruling.
Mr M'membe has been in and out of prison during more or less democratic regimes in Zambia, his 'Post' newspaper always celebrated as the lighthouse of a free press in the country. His current sentence is the however first under current President Rupiah Banda, and it is causing surprise and outrage.
Fred M'membe was accused of having allowed publication in his newspaper on 27 August 2009, of an article headlined, "The Chansa Kabwela case: A comedy of Errors", written by a US-based Zambian lawyer, commenting on a trial then under way of news editor of 'The Post', Chansa Kabwela, accused of "distributing obscene photos likely to corrupt public morals".
Ms Kabwela on 10 June 2009, following a strike by Zambian doctors, sent Vice-President, George Kunda, the Health Minister and several organisations, a letter accompanied by a photo of a woman giving birth in a street. She wanted to draw the authorities' attention to the worsening conditions for women having babies in the country.
Her trial was held from August to September 2009 and led to her acquittal on 16 November 2009.
Mr M'membe now has been given a four-month prison sentence with hard labour after after the court found him guilty of "contempt of court" for allowing the publication of an article about an ongoing trial in 2009.
Passing sentence, the trial judge, David Simusamba said he hoped the sentence "would discourage all those who wanted to commit such acts." The editor was taken immediately to prison after sentence was passed. "It is a black day for press freedom", said one of his lawyers, who added that he would be lodging an appeal.
Southern African editors in a statement of solidarity today condemned the imposition of "an extremely severe four months' jail sentence," saying they had expected only a fine would be imposed. Editors called for Mr M'membe's "immediate release from jail and for the conviction to be dealt with by the Zambian appeal court."
Also the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today strongly protested the sentence. "We do not understand the reasons that led to the Zambian justice system imposing such a harsh penalty on Fred M'membe," RSF said in a statement.
"This sentence is all the more absurd because the 'Chansa Kabwela case' for which the journalist was tried should have been over long ago. We also condemn the judge's remarks that he was passing an exemplary sentence, which amounts to hounding 'The Post'," the group added, calling for the editor's immediate release.
In a bizarre addition to the verdict, the judge also sentenced the newspaper itself to four months in prison. This sentence will also be applied to Mr M'membe, but will be served concurrently with his own sentence.
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