The United States on Monday urged the Zambian authorities to reopen the country’s largest independent newspaper, which was shut last week allegedly over unpaid tax.
The Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) last week closed the Post newspaper, claiming it owes 53 million kwacha ($4,8 million) in tax arrears.
But the paper rejects the tax collecting agency’s claims and says the shutdown is an attempt to silence it ahead of August elections.
Visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Zambia needed a free press if the polls are to be credible and transparent.
“Freedom of the press is a key component of democracy and it is important for your elections,” she said during a public discussion on political violence ahead of the August 11 general election.
“I am not arguing that the Post should not pay the fee — what I am arguing is that efforts should be made to work it out so that you can continue to have the benefits of an independent state,” she said.
Earlier, Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu defended the shutting down of the paper.
He said the tax dispute dates back seven years, and the timing of the closure was unrelated to the elections.
“Some of you are saying that the timing of the court’s decision is awkward,” Lungu told foreign diplomats accredited to Lusaka. “Tell me when is the right time for courts to act independently?
“This matter cannot be stayed because of elections.”
The Post, which was established in 1991, has been critical of Lungu, who is seeking re-election.
Lungu’s biggest challenger is expected to be the United Party for National Development leader Hakainde Hichilema, who came second by a wafer-thin margin in last year’s presidential by-election after the sudden death of leader Michael Sata.