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Newspaper editor receives heavy sentence

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has expressed its dismay at a four-month prison sentence with hard labour handed down to Fred M'membe, editor and owner of the independent newspaper "The Post" after finding him guilty of "contempt of court" for allowing the publication of an article about an ongoing trial in 2009.

Passing sentence, the trial judge, David Simusamba said he hoped the sentence "would discourage all those who wanted to commit such acts." The editor was taken immediately to prison after sentence was passed. "It is a black day for press freedom", said one of his lawyers, who added that he would be lodging an appeal.

Fred M'membe was accused of having allowed publication in his newspaper on 27 August 2009, of an article headlined, "The Chansa Kabwela case: A comedy of Errors", written by a US-based Zambian lawyer, commenting on a trial then under way of news editor of "The Post", Chansa Kabwela, accused of "distributing obscene photos likely to corrupt public morals".

Kabwela on 10 June 2009, following a strike by Zambian doctors, sent vice-president, George Kunda, the health minister and several organisations, a letter accompanied by a photo of a woman giving birth in a street. She wanted to draw the authorities' attention to the worsening conditions for women having babies in the country.

Her trial was held from August to September 2009 and led to her acquittal on 16 November 2009.

"We do not understand the reasons that led to the Zambian justice system imposing such a harsh penalty on Fred M'membe," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "This sentence is all the more absurd because the 'Chansa Kabwela case' for which the journalist was tried should have been over long ago. We also condemn the judge's remarks that he was passing an exemplary sentence, which amounts to hounding 'The Post'," it added, calling for the journalist's immediate release.

In a bizarre addition to the verdict, the judge also sentenced the newspaper itself to four months in prison. This sentence will also be applied to M'membe, but will be served concurrently with his own sentence.
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