Many will remember the trial last year of a young Zambian news reporter at the Zambia, who was accused of distributing obscene materials after she sent photos to a variety of high profile Zambian government officials showing a woman giving birth in the parking lot of a hospital after being turned away. The baby in question did not survive childbirth and while the Post deemed the pictures too graphic to be published, its editors felt that some attention needed to be drawn to them and the dire situation of Zambia’s health care system. Chansa Kabwela, the reporter in question, was cleared of the charges in November last year after a great deal of public attention and outrage on the case.
The story doesn’t end there however. During the trial last year, the Post published an opinion piece on it, criticising the judicial system and the government. According to Zambian law, it is illegal to comment on a case before the courts for fear of prejudicing the outcome, and so the Editor-in-Chief of the Post, Fred M’membe was charged with contempt of the court. This week, he was jailed for four months with hard labour. According to the judge, the sentence was necessary to deter others from similar acts.
The decision is another worrying development for media freedom in Zambia, particularly because its president has been so heavily involved in these cases and his dislike for the Post is well known. President Rupiah Banda condemned the original images as pornography and it was he who personally ordered the prosecution of Kabwela and M’membe. As Zambia is a country with a relatively stable political and economic environment, seeing Banda act so vengefully against critical press is alarming to say the least.
Zambian businesses, media and civil society need to make clear that this type of intervention in press freedom is not tolerated before the ink on the judgment dries. If they don’t, who knows what President Banda could decide he doesn’t want to hear about next and what price the next journalist will pay.