The state today could not present witnesses in a case where former information permanent secretary Dr Samson Phiri and others are accused of using public funds towards media activities because the defence lawyer was absent.
When the matter came up for commencement of trial before Lusaka principal resident magistrate Aridah Chulu yesterday, state prosecutor Martin Mayembe said the state was ready to dispense with five witnesses.
However, Dr Phiri’s lawyer, Maj Charles Lisita of Central Chambers, informed magistrate Chulu that the defence was applying for an adjournment because Mataka’s lawyer, Sunday Nkonde, was unwell.
“I have also spoken to his client on his behalf and his client informed me that he is uncomfortable to proceed into trial in the absence of his counsel,” Maj Lisita said. “Under the circumstances it is a pity, it’s unfortunate but we have no choice. Our hands are tied.”
Mayembe said the state had no objection to the application.
This is a case where Dr Phiri, 56, former Zambia Daily Mail Managing Editor Davies Mataka, 44, former Afronet executive director Ngande Mwananjiti, 51, and the Zambian Newspaper Limited are jointly charged with alleged “corrupt acquisition of public property and revenue” and “unlawful printing and publication” with regard to a newspaper which for a period in 2011 published critical articles about Michael Sata and the Patriotic Front.
It is alleged in the first count that Dr Phiri, Mataka and Mwananjiti between April 19 and November 2011 in Lusaka fraudulently and unlawfully diverted about K195 million Public Media Support Fund from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services for the production of a private newspaper called ‘The Zambian’.
It is further alleged in the second count that the Zambian Newspaper Limited, Mataka alias ‘John Allan Mugwida’ and Mwananjiti alias ‘George Banda’ on diverse dates between January 1 and November 1, 2011 in Lusaka unlawfully printed or published a newspaper namely ‘The Zambian’ without registering it with the National Archives of Zambia.
The arrests and charges against Phiri, Mataka, as well as journalist Chanda Chimba III, who is facing a different case, have been denounced as politically motivated revenge by rights campaigners, as the prosecutions seek to punish them for exercising their right to free speech, according to the Commonwealth Report recently presented by the Coalition for the Defence of Democratic Rights (CDDR).