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Court throws out Chansa Kabwela obscenity case

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 16 November 2009 - A magistrate in Lusaka, Zambia, today threw out the case against the Post editor Chansa Kabwela, who was charged with distributing obscene materials in a case brought against her by the state after she sent photos of a woman giving birth in the street to Zambia's vice president and health minister to draw attention to the consequences of a health sector strike in June this year.

According to an email IPI received from the Post, senior magistrate Charles Kafunda ruled that Kabwela had no case to answer, arguing that although the prosecution had established that Kabwela distributed the photographs, they had failed to establish that the photographs were obscene.

"I'm very happy," said Kabwela in a phone interview from Lusaka. "I'm glad the courts have vindicated me. What I did on behalf of the Post was in goodwill, and we wanted to show a desperate situation to the authorities. I'm very happy, and I'm also happy for the woman in the pictures, and for the women whose pictures were not taken, who suffered equally during the strike."

Kabwela added, "I think the decision is big. It shows that what we did was in goodwill, and that this was a pure case of harassment and intimidation. It's unfortunate that I had to go through this. I can't understand how anyone can look at these images and see pornography."

Kabwela was arrested on 13 July for circulating obscene material contrary to section 177(b) of the Zambian penal code, which makes it illegal to possess or distribute an "object tending to corrupt morals." She pleaded not guilty the next day.

The photographs, attached to a letter, were sent to the health minister on 10 June and copied to other civil society and government officials in order to draw attention to the suffering caused by an ongoing strike amongst health workers, according to Kabwela. Her paper did not publish the photos, which it says were taken by a relative of the mother and delivered to its newsroom. The photos show a woman, lying in the street in front of a hospital, delivering a baby who is in the breech position. There are no medical personnel in the photographs. The child later died.

At a press conference in June, Zambian President Rupiah Banda described whomever was responsible for taking the photos as "morbid and peculiar," and said he hoped "that there are laws in this country to stop the young men from taking pornographic [sic]."

Kabwela told IPI, "This whole case is a lesson, not just to me but to journalists, not just in Zambia but everywhere in Africa, that you have to stand for the truth. I'm very happy."

"Today is a huge victory for press freedom. IPI is encouraged by the court's decision to throw out the case against Chansa Kabwela for the absurd charge of distributing obscene photographs," said IPI Deputy Director Alison Bethel-McKenzie. "As an editor at the newspaper, Kabwela chose not to print the disturbing pictures, and instead decided to send them to the responsible officials and civil society members. As a Zambian citizen, Kabwela has the right to call officials' attention to problems in the country without facing trumped-up charges merely because of her journalistic affiliation with the Post."

In a related case, the Post's deputy managing editor, Sam Mujuda, and the paper's editor-in-chief, Fred M'membe, were cited for contempt over a 27 August article by Ivy League law professor Muna Ndulo that was published in the newspaper, which branded the case a "comedy of errors."

Mujuda, who is currently outside Zambia, has been dropped from the contempt proceedings, but will face charges upon his return.

M'membe pleaded not guilty on 14 October. A verdict is expected in the contempt case on Wednesday, 18 November.
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