Fred M’membe, Zambia
World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)
As editor in chief of The Post, Zambia’s leading independent daily, the outspoken Fred M’membe has incurred the wrath of President Frederick Chiluba’s ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) for his newspaper’s exposés of government corruption and abuses of power. The Post’s staff has been frequently harassed, threatened and even detained in overcrowded cells where malaria and tuberculosis are common. M’membe himself has been the target of more than 50 lawsuits and has faced more than 100 years in jail. Issues of the paper have been banned or confiscated and, in the first act of censorship on the Internet in Africa, ordered removed from The Post’s World Wide Web site. The paper’s printing press has been stopped and its editorial office raided by the police and pro-MMD gangs.
Ironically, M’membe was an active player in the founding of the MMD in July 1990. His paper helped to oust President Kenneth Kuanda and install the country’s first democratically elected president, Frederick Chiluba, who now leads the vendetta against M’membe.
M’membe was born on March 11, 1959, in Mongu, Zambia. After studying and working as an accountant, he founded Post Newspapers Limited in 1991, the publishing company that launched The Weekly Post. That same year, he founded Independent Printers Limited, which today prints The Post and two independent weeklies. The Weekly Post – now The Post – quickly took the lead among Zambia’s independent media in criticizing Chiluba as he reneged on his election campaign promises for reform.
The newspaper’s critical reporting soon brought M’membe into conflict with Chiluba and the MMD government. Through the years, M’membe and his staff have been charged with criminal defamation, criminally defaming the president, contempt of parliament, possessing and publishing classified documents, publishing false information, treason, sedition and inciting the army to revolt.
During the presidential election year of 1996, Chiluba escalated his efforts to silence Zambia’s independent media in general and The Post in particular. The Feb. 5 edition of the paper, which revealed government plans to hold a referendum on proposed constitutional changes, was banned while M’membe, managing editor Bright Mwape and special projects editor Masautso Phiri were charged with possession of a banned publication and state secrets.
Two weeks later, M’membe, Mwape and columnist Lucy Sichone went into hiding to avoid imprisonment on charges of contempt of parliament under the Protection of Parliamentary Privileges Act, legislation dating back to British colonial rule. The charges stemmed from articles in which The Post criticized a speech by the vice president. In March M’membe and Mwape surrendered and were held in separate maximum security prisons for 24 days under grim conditions.
In the biggest crackdown on the paper to date, police set out on the night of March 9, 1999, to arrest journalists from The Post after an order for them to arrest the paper’s entire staff before dawn. By morning police had arrested six reporters, who were released on March 12 following a habeas corpus application. They were formally charged with espionage on March 17. The arrests followed an uproar in the National Assembly over a lead story in The Post, entitled “Angola Worries Zambia Army,” which questioned the military capacity of the country to withstand an invasion from neighboring Angola. The National Assembly deputy speaker directed the defense minister to immediately take action against the paper for “putting the country’s security under threat.”
Parallel to the arrests, police also laid siege to the paper’s editorial office and printing press and, for the first time in the seven-year history of The Post, the newspaper failed to appear on the streets of Lusaka on March 11. Before the end of the month, 12 Post journalists, including M’membe, had been arrested and charged with espionage. All were released on bail pending trial.
Despite this unprecedented attempt by the Chiluba government to permanently silence The Post, Fred M’membe remains undaunted. A founder of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which seeks to foster free, independent and diverse media throughout Southern Africa, he is firmly committed to uphold the principle of press freedom in Zambia, to uncover the truth and to report the facts, earning him worldwide recognition and admiration.