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RIGHTS-ZAMBIA: ‘Justice Prevailed’ – Says News Editor Acquitted of False Charges

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Dec 9 2009 (IPS) - Chansa Kabwela faced a five-year jail sentence when she sent photographs of a woman giving birth, without medical assistance while in the country’s largest hospital, to government officials.

Chansa Kabwela speaking to the media after her acquittal. Credit: Kelvin Kachingwe/IPS

Chansa Kabwela speaking to the media after her acquittal. Credit: Kelvin Kachingwe/IPS

Kawbela had been trying to draw government’s attention to the health crisis. But instead she was arrested for circulating pornography. She has been acquitted of all charges, but she says if she has a choice, she will do it all over again.

The recently acquitted news editor of the country’s largest independent daily, The Post, says the case certainly will not deter her from pointing out wrongs or alerting the authorities to any public issue that she deems needs their attention.

Kabwela, 29, told IPS that she believes leaders are elected to serve the people and that they are paid tax payers money to look after the welfare of the people. As such, they should not hide their shortcomings in the name of culture or the law.

“I have learnt a lot through this harassment. I have always believed that human nature is always tilted to justice and that was exactly what happened in my case. Justice prevailed,” she said.

Kabwela faced a five-year jail sentence if she was convicted of sending graphic images of a woman giving birth without medical help at the country’s biggest hospital, the University Teaching Hospital, to various prominent people in Zambia. These included the minister of health and the vice president, who also doubles as the minister of justice.

“The case itself was a very big inconvenience but the most important thing is the lesson I and The Post have drawn from it. I sent the letter on behalf of The Post, asking the government to address a particular problem. My concern was about the poor that suffered during that period. It is a pity my intention was misunderstood and deliberately so,” Kabwela said.

Although she did not publish the picture, she was charged with circulating pornography with intent to corrupt public morals after President Rupiah Banda raised alarm about the images during a press briefing.

Kabwela, who is chairperson of the Post Press Freedom Committee, had argued that she sent the pictures because she wanted to highlight the effect the strike had on the health care system.

In acquitting Kabwela, Magistrate Charles Kafunda said the prosecutors had failed to prove its case against her.

“The prosecution failed to establish an element of a prima facie case and I therefore dismiss the case and subsequently acquit the accused. The state has, however, the right to appeal,” Kafunda told a packed courtroom.

The Post editor-in-chief, Fred M’Membe, who is facing a contempt of court charge for publishing a story headlined “The Chansa Kabwela Case: A Comedy of Errors”, challenged Banda to appeal.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it is pleased with the decision to acquit Kabwela on the spurious charge of disseminating obscene photographs.

“The Zambian government must stop seeking ways to intimidate and censor the country’s leading independent daily,” CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes said.

The Southern Africa Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD) says the acquittal is a clear sign that trumped-up charges against innocent citizens by the state can never stick.

“Her victory is a victory for all Zambians, particularly the media fraternity. The judgment is a clear sign that trumped-up charges against innocent citizens by the state can never stick,” executive director Lee Habasonda said.

“The ruling should send a message to those planning to regulate the media using government instruments to oppress and suppress the truth. Hence any law they are planning based on targeting people and settling scores will fail to stand the test of time and the victims will at some point triumph.”

Habasonda said government must have realised that it was an exercise in futility to waste such time and resources for a clear case. It did not even require a lawyer to know that it was damned, he said.

He urged government to ensure that they critically consider some of the cases before they are taken to court. He said it is not only a continuous source of embarrassment for government (to prosecute such cases), but also shows lack of proper priority setting in the country.

He said government legal advisors must begin to advise against some of these politically nuanced legal undertakings because they reflect badly on them in the final analysis.

“The manpower being used to pursue those with divergent views can well service the country to rid it of criminals and other people who are the real threats to the well-being of our society,” Habasonda said.

“To the media, we urge you to fight on and reject any manoeuvres to encroach on your freedom to tell the truth and improve our democratic dispensation. We are happy that this in the end has made Kabwela a heroine of our time.”

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the Lusaka chief resident magistrate Charles Kafunda took the right decision to acquit Kabwela, as the charges against her were ridiculous and baseless.

“We nonetheless regret that the authorities subjected her to this ordeal for many months for no reason,” RSF stated.

And United Party for National Development vice president, Francis Simenda, said Banda’s directive for the police to arrest and prosecute Kabwela following his failure to address the desperate situation in the hospital was unreasonable.

“People were giving birth on the streets because no one was there at the hospitals to help them. Just (when you) tell them that the situation in the health sector is desperate they arrest Chansa and victimise and embarrass her to the levels of agitating for the people of Zambia to turn against her,” he said.

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