(By Namatama Njekwa and Charles Tembo)
THE Supreme Court has sentenced Rainbow Newspaper editor-in-chief Derrick Sinjela to 18 months imprisonment for contempt of court.
But All People’s Congress president Nason Msoni says jailing a journalist is a terrible indictment on the government and is essentially an international matter, which will haunt the State.
Meanwhile, Sinjela has urged journalists to be strong.
Sinjela pleaded guilty of contempt of court in August this year following articles he published in the Rainbow Newspaper alleging corruption in the manner in the bench handled the appeal case of Savenda Management Services Limited against Stanbic Bank.
Sinjele in purging the contempt admitted that he was sensational in the manner he wrote the articles, explaining that it was a marketing strategy for the newspaper.
He apologised and withdrew the words, which the court found to be contemptuous.
The court convicted him upon his own plea of guilt.
Savenda had sued the bank, claiming K192.5 million in damages for loss of business as a result of being registered as a bad debtor with the Credit Reference Bureau.
The case was decided in Savenda’s favour by the Lusaka High Court but Stanbic Bank appealed to the Court of Appeal who overturned the earlier verdict and determined the case in the bank’s favour.
Dissatisfied with the Court of Appeal’s decision, Savenda appealed to the Supreme Court who upheld the lower court’s decision prompting different members of the public to comment on the issue.
Delivering judgment, the court said Sinjela was irresponsible in the manner he wrote the articles, which was aggravating.
Justice Evans Hamaundu, who was sitting with deputy Chief Justice Marvin Mwanamwambwa, justices Gregory Phiri, Royda Kaoma and Nigel Mutuna, read the first part of the judgment.
Justice Hamaundu said the court considered Sinjela’s apology and weighed his mitigation against the aggravating circumstances.
He said the allegations which Sinjela made against the judges were baseless.
Justice Hamaundu said the articles were purely sensational and for making the newspaper to sell.
And passing the sentence, justice Mwanamwambwa, who asked Sinjela to stand up, said the convict was careless in his reporting.
He said 100 per cent of the articles he published were an attack on Stanbic and the bench.
“You even went to the extent of giving us free copies so that we read your articles, you also put up a banner on Chikwa road, a poster accusing Stanbic of being corrupt. You also continued commenting as the proceedings were going on because you wanted the outcome to be in the favour of Savenda. That’s irresponsible behaviour which is aggravating,” justice Mwanamwambwa said.
He said the court was sentencing Sinjela to a custodial sentence of 18 months simple imprisonment with effect from yesterday, December 20.
Justice Mwanamwambwa said had Sinjela not pleaded guilty, the court would have slapped him with a higher sentence.
He ordered the police to take him to prison.
Last month, the Supreme Court jailed Southern Africa Network against Corruption executive director Gregory Chifire to six years simple imprisonment over four counts of contempt of court.
The court jailed Chifire in absentia because he did not turn up for his judgment and the court ordered the police to fetch and hand him to prison.
Chifire pleaded not guilty to contempt of Court but the court found him guilty over the letters he sent to Chief Justice Irene Mambalima and the chairperson of the Judicial Complaints Commission, which contained contemptuous words.
The Supreme Court is yet to deliver verdict in the contempt case of Chikondi Foundation president Bishop John Mambo.
Meanwhile, Sinjela has urged journalists to be strong, adding that he expected the verdict.
Human rights activist McDonald Chipezi said rights to a free press should be protected.
He said Sinjela has lived up to what he believed in.
“This shows also that we have to be careful now, either to be silent or both outside court and inside court but at the end of the day we have to religiously protect our rights to expression,” Chipenzi said.
SACCORD executive director Boniface Chembe said it was a sad day.
“We take note of the sentence that the court of law has slapped on our comrade, comrade Derrick Sinjela and obviously coming from the human rights defenders’ point of view, it is a sad day that requires a lot of digestion, considering the fact that we have seen one or two human rights defenders being sentenced in the last few weeks. Our hope is that we will continue to engage on matters of human rights and defending of those human rights but clearly with specific reference to today’s ruling, comrade Sinjela did admit that he was wrong and the courts of law were left with choice of basically coming up with the sentence that they felt was appropriate considering what all the happening,” he said.
Chembe said he hoped what happened would not deter people from engaging in human rights.
MISA-Zambia vice chairperson Hyde Haguta: “Journalism is about freedom of expression, journalism is about giving people, citizens, a platform to be heard. You and I, our role, we are the watchdog for the citizens and doing so we are compiled to give accurate and correct information…at the end of the day the court has made a decision and there is nothing we can do as MISA, what can we do?”
But Msoni said it was shameful that the government now wants to silence citizens using the courts.
“Jailing of journalist Sinjela is shameful and troubling. It would appear that the court didn’t do introspection on the jailing of Mr Gregory Chifire. It is our considered view that an opportunity has yet been lost to do the right thing. This is a season of goodwill which should have compelled the court to exercise maximum leniency,” Msoni said in a statement.
“We are utterly sad by this decision and we think an opportunity to fix the international image of the country has yet again been lost. We condemn the jailing of a good man in the strongest terms and we appeal to our fraternal friends from the international community to help secure the release of Mr Sinjela, a seasoned practitioner of journalism. Our hearts and sympathy go to his family and regret that he will not be with them during the festival season.”
He said there was urgent need to have judicial reforms.
“We think judicial reforms are imperative to undertake in the circumstances given the apparent glaring errors of law and the misdirections,” said Msoni.