In recent weeks, the President of Zambia Michael Sata has initiated or threatened to initiated a vast series of legal actions in a bid to silence opponents and those perceived to be critical of the Patriotic Front administration.
While one civil servant has already been convicted and sentenced to three months in jail for having allegedly defamed the president, many of the other lawsuits include demands for stiff financial penalties that many of the individuals are unable to pay.
Within a period of one week, the independent Daily Nation newspaper has received two legal suits from President Michael Sata for defamation of character and the Head of State is claiming over US$400,000.
Mr Sata has also sued University of Zambia lecturer Choolwe Beyani over a story in the Daily Nation. In each suit, Mr Sata through his lawyers Ellis and Company is demanding a retraction of the defamatory words, a written apology, and K500 million (About US$100,000.00).
In the first case, Mr Sata sued the Daily Nation together with Robert Amsterdam, an international lawyer representing Henry Banda, the son to former president of Zambia Rupiah Banda. This is a story in the Daily Nation Newspaper edition published on 8th of May, 2012 (Vol. 2, Issue 175) entitled ‘Sata Shielding Crooks.’ The story alleged that Mr Sata was shielding Director of Public Prosecution Mutembo Nchito and Post newspapers proprietor Fred M’membe from a judicial decision requiring the repayment of a K14 billion debt to the publicly owned Development Bank of Zambia.
In responding to the legal suit, Amsterdam said President Sata’s crude efforts to silence and bully opponents with threats and intimidation will not work.
“We would in fact welcome the opportunity to lead a serious public debate on the unlawful conduct of this administration,” Mr. Amsterdam said in a statement. “As a public figure, I had no idea that President Sata was so sensitive to criticism, but given this government’s stance toward freedom of the press, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
In the second suit, Mr Sata has sued both the Daily and National newspaper and leader of opposition United Party for National Development Hakainde Hichilema regarding a no-bid multi-million dollar contract for the renovation of State House (throughout the election campaign, Mr. Sata frequently denounced the practice of no-bid contracts by the previous government).
Mr. Hichilema has made an expose in which Mr. Sata selected the company Apollo Construction, which is directly owned by Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda, to renovate State House. Mr Chikwanda is President Sata’s long time friend and close relative. In response to Hichilema and the Daily Nation for publishing these facts, President Sata is demanding a crippling payment of K1.2 billion (About US$220,000)
In another recent lawsuit, Mr Sata has sued Choolwe Beyani over a story in which Beyani alleges that the removal of Lusaka lawyer Vincent Malambo from the legal team on the Development Bank of Zambia was criminal. Mr Sata is claiming K500 million. (about US$100,000).
Adding to this long list of expensive defamation suits, President Sata has also launched a lawsuit against the independent radio station HOT FM, which at one point was a supporter of the PF’s campaign, along with opposition politician Douglas Siakalima of the United Party for National Development (UPND). Sata is demanding a payment of K500 million (US$100,000.00) for alleged defamation in a news story.
Political analysts, journalists and advocates of press freedom have observed that advancing legal suits is one of Mr Sata’s known tricks to silence and threaten media houses and people that are critical of his political deception.
A chairman for one of the media bodies who spoke with Zambia Reports on the condition of anonymity said that Mr. Sata has a tendency to run to the courts each time he is challenged in politics, which is illustrative of zero tolerance for criticism.
“We all remember how Mr Sata sued the Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia on several occasions for defamation of character when he was in the opposition. These cases are still before the courts and his actions were carefully calculated to instill fear in the minds of journalists,” the source said. “This is a blatant abuse of the legal system – in few other countries does a head of state file so many defamation suits … criticism is a part of normal politics.”
As president, Mr. Sata has immunity from prosecution, making him unreachable and protected from any possible legal responses from those targeted in the defamation suits.