The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed concern over a raid by the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) this morning on offices of The Post newspaper, an incident that comes amid mounting pressure on the publication in recent months.
ZRA officers, accompanied by armed police officers, arrived at the Lusaka offices of Post Newspapers Limited at approximately 8 a.m. to serve a warrant demanding immediate payment of approximately €500,000 in purported late payment penalties and interest in a tax case against the company that arose in September 2014, when a similar raid was conducted.
Representatives of The Post, however, told IPI that they had never been informed of the outstanding amount until this morning’s raid. They said that while the ZRA previously indicated that penalties and interest would be due, The Post had contested the manner in which it was to be calculated and the ZRA had failed to respond to “numerous communications” by The Post seeking to reconcile the disagreement.
During the course of this morning’s raid, the ZRA also delivered a demand notice for payment of approximately €85,000 in allegedly unpaid VAT payments and €623,000 in unpaid payroll taxes.
The Post, in a statement released earlier today, claimed the ZRA was “out to fix us” and claimed that authorities tipped off other media about the raid in advance. General Manager for Finance Rowena Zulu said in the statement: “There is no doubt politics is at play in this matter.”
Zulu denied that The Post owes any VAT amount, stating unequivocally that its “VAT account is up to date” and that the figures the ZRA used to make its claim were incorrect. She also noted that in the last 11 months The Post has paid at least €2.8 million to the ZRA in relation to the tax case, which led to a delay in payment of Post employees’ salary. That delay, and a dispute over when the company was required to pay withheld payroll tax amounts to the ZRA, is at the heart of the €623,000 claim.
Today’s raid was conducted in spite of a hearing set for Monday to determine whether to stay enforcement of a High Court judgment against the company in the tax case while The Post appeals that judgment. The company complained in its statement this morning that the ZRA “could not even wait for that hearing and they have swung into action against us”.
IPI contacted the ZRA by email seeking comment about today’s raid, but received no response.
“We are extremely concerned by today’s action, particularly coming on the heels of incidents in recent months that have ratcheted up pressure against The Post,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “Given the nature of the claims and the amounts sought, the case against The Post needs to be transparent and to be given time to work its way through the legal process. A failure to afford both would have a chilling effect on media freedom in Zambia.”
Today’s raid comes at a time of increasing pressure directed towards The Post amid Zambia’s polarised political climate. Last month, a bullet penetrated the paper’s newsroom, but fortunately did not injure anyone.
In July, criminal charges were brought against Post Editor-in-Chief and IPI World Press Freedom hero Fred M’membe 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 a trial date has yet to be set.
Moreover, earlier this year, Zambia President Edgar Lungu made public remarks that were widely interpreted to represent a veiled death threat against M’membe.
In a recent interview with IPI, M’membe spoke about Zambia’s problems, commenting that the president “doesn’t want those problems to be highlighted, analysed and discussed”. He added: “We are providing a platform for the Zambian people to discuss these issues. And to him, the discussion of these issues, the analysing of these issues, threatens his hold on power.”