September 2, 2009

Zambian Editorial Board Faces Prison Time for Prof’s Editorial

Print More

The editorial board of a major Zambian newspaper will be facing up to six months in prison as a result of a column written by a Cornell Professor in defense of the paper’s imprisoned editor.
On Aug. 27, Prof. Muna Ndulo, law, director of the Institute for African Development, wrote a column in The Zambia Post, the primary opposition newspaper in Zambia, criticizing the government’s arrest of that newspaper’s editor, Chansa Kabwela, on charges of distributing obscene materials.
Kabwela was detained in June for distributing graphic photographs of a breeched birth, a delivery in which a child exits the mother’s womb feet- or bottom-first. Normally, this dangerous situation can be avoided through caesarian section delivery; in this case, however, the child died because a strike of medical workers at the nation’s public hospitals has left a shortage of available doctors and nurses.
The baby’s father gave the photographs to Kabwela, who sent the images to government members in an attempt to shed light on the situation. The government, at the urging of President Rupiah Banda, responded by arresting Kabwela under the Zambian Penal Code section regulating “obscene material.”
In his column, entitled “The Chansa Kabwela Case: A Comedy of Errors,” Ndulo criticized the foundation of the case against Kabwela, calling it frivolous.
“The average person in Zambia, while no doubt being shocked and disgusted by the picture, would not regard the publication of pictures of a woman giving birth in order to expose the plight of ordinary people during a national strike by medical personnel as being prurient and having the effect or as intended to deprave and corrupt morals,” Ndulo wrote. “Instead, the pictures should lead to outrage and anger at those who were not making maximum efforts to end the strike. The context and manner in which they were distributed leaves no doubt in one’s mind that the pictures were intended to make those in authority realize the serious impact of the medical strike and to bring about action to end the strike.”
He further criticized the actions taken by the various levels of the Zambian government as politically motivated. International human rights and journalist associations have similarly criticized the Zambian government’s handling of the case.
On Monday, Chief Resident Magistrate of Lusaka Province Charles Kafunda, summoned the entire editorial staff of The Post to appear before the court for the allegedly contemptuous material contained in Ndulo’s article.
“This case is not about me. It is about a journalist who is suffering,” Ndulo, who served as the dean of the University of Zambia Law School before coming to Cornell, said yesterday. “It is not fair for the government to use the courts to attempt to intimidate this [newspaper editor].”
“I am disappointed that the situation was let to deteriorate,” Kafunda said after ordering the summons.
The editorial board of The Post, comprised of 50 or so individuals, will be appearing in court today. Although he has not yet been summoned to appear before court, Ndulo said that he would return to Zambia if he were.
“In this situation, I was able to see injustice and to do something about it,” said Ndulo, “I see it as an important way to emphasize freedom of the press.”