Zambian authorities should immediately investigate the arbitrary detention of Muvi TV journalist Innocent Phiri and camera operator Obvious Kapunda, nullify their fine and admission of guilt as it was made under duress, and ensure that police do not harass journalists who are covering the news, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
Around 6:30 p.m. on November 13, police arrested Phiri and Kapunda as they filmed officers preparing to arrest opposition Economic and Equity Party leader Chilufya Tayali at his home in the capital, Lusaka, according to multiple media reports, a statement by the Zambian chapter of the regional press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa, and a Facebook post by Phiri.
Phiri and Kapunda work for the privately owned broadcaster Muvi TV, and CPJ spoke to both journalists and Muvi TV’s CEO, Mabvuto Phiri, by messaging app for this report.
The journalists were detained for 21 hours and spent the night in a cell before they were released on November 14, after signing an admission of guilt and paying a fine of 54 Zambian kwachas (US$3.25) for disorderly conduct, they told CPJ. The journalists said they wouldn’t challenge the matter further.
“Authorities in Zambia must ensure that journalists are free to cover breaking news in the public interest without having to contend with censorship and heavy-handed actions of police, including arbitrary detention,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “The fact that journalists Innocent Phiri and Obvious Kapunda had to plead guilty and pay a fine under duress or risk continued detention is unacceptable, and their admission of guilt and fine must be nullified.”
Police were angered by the journalists’ presence at the operation and ordered them to leave or risk being shot at, claiming the operation was “sensitive,” Phiri and Kapunda told CPJ. The journalists continued to report, and the officers arrested them and threatened to shoot Phiri if he did not comply, according to Phiri and security footage uploaded to Facebook.
Phiri said the officers took them to Le Soleil Police Post in the Lusaka suburb of Roma and briefly confiscated their phones and camera.
On November 14, police charged the journalists with disorderly conduct contrary to Section 60 of the Zambia Police Act, according to the journalists’ lawyer Leon Lemba, who spoke to CPJ by phone, and a report quoting police spokesperson Rae Hamoonga.
Police initially intended to charge the journalists with obstruction of police under the penal code, which carries a sentence of up to five years, Lemba said.
Police spokesperson Rae Hamoonga and chief government spokesperson Chushi Kasanda did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via messaging app and text.