Zambia’s president, Edgar Lungu, has reportedly cancelled a high-profile scheduled meeting with US assistant secretary for African affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
This after learning that she intended to discuss issues that included violations of press freedom, infringements on democratic rights and an upsurge in state-sponsored political violence in the build-up to Zambia’s August 11 presidential elections.
Zambian private media reports said that after being snubbed by Lungu, the US diplomat held a press conference where she raised several Zambian issues of concern to the US ahead of her departure to Botswana, where she met vice-president Mokgweetsi Masisi to discuss bilateral ties and “issues of common concern” late on Wednesday.
Thomas-Greenfield was scheduled to meet President Lungu, government officials, opposition party leaders, civil society leaders, wildlife and tourism experts and young Zambians who recently benefited from the Mandela Washington Fellowship program. She was also scheduled to meet Fred Mmembe, the editor-in-chief of the privately owned Post Newspapers, but the meeting did not take place as Mmembe was arrested a few hours earlier.
The US and several other European embassies in Lusaka criticised the closure of the paper by the state over unpaid taxes over a week ago as an attempt to muzzle its critical coverage of the government ahead of the August elections. The criticism has angered Lusaka, which responded by calling all foreign diplomats to a meeting in which President Lungu challenged all foreign embassies sympathetic to The Post to stop criticising the closure and pay up its tax arrears instead.
“The US diplomat had fruitful meetings with leading opposition figures who include Hakainde Hichilema, President of the United Party for National Development (UPND). She was also scheduled to meet Post Newspaper editor-in-chief Fred M’membe, but M’membe was arrested hours before the planned meeting. Infact, one reason for M’membe’s arrest was to prevent him from meeting the American diplomats,” a source, who declined to be identified for fear of victimisation, told the Zambian Watchdog.
A US embassy statement said in her remarks at the press conference, Thomas-Grenfield praised the positive nature of bilateral relations between the two countries but expressed concerns over the arrest of journalists, opposition political leaders and the timing of the closure of the Post Newspaper in the light of its critical role ahead of the August elections.
“The August 11 elections matter to the United States government, the region, international community, as well as the Zambian people. Zambia has built itself a democratic tradition that should be jealously and courageously guarded. Zambia’s reputation is on the line during this pre-election period and on August 11. The August 11 elections must be free, transparent and credible,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
“Further, she said press freedom was an integral part to free, credible and transparent elections and reiterated the U.S. Embassy statement that the timing of the closure of The Post Newspaper by the Zambian Revenue Authority, only weeks before important elections in Zambia, is of deep concern. She urged the government to work with The Post to find a way to allow The Post to pay its back-taxes and re-open. She added that the beating and arrest of The Post owner, his wife, and managing editor, and indeed the beating and harassment of any member of the press, is a direct assault on press freedom in Zambia,” the embassy said.
Thomas-Greenfield challenged all Zambian political parties to avoid situations that could lead to political violence and refrain from reacting negatively or with violence to provocations from opposing party cadres. She urged political leaders to condemn violence as they are responsible for the actions of their party members.
“Our candidates for the August 11 elections are the Zambian people and the practice of democracy. The Zambian people must be able to freely choose the candidates of their choice on August 11, without pressure, fear, intimidation, or coercion,” Thomas-Greenfield said.