Saturday, June 05, 2010

Shooting the Messenger

About a year ago, Chansa Kabwela, news editor at the Post newspaper in Zambia, sent graphic photographs to the country's Vice-President and several other senior government officials. The pictures were of a Zambian woman giving birth, unaided by medical personnel, in a public space at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka, Zambia's largest medical facility. Ms. Kabwela's motive was to bring the dire state of medical services at UTH, particularly for expectant mothers, to the Zambian government's immediate and urgent attention. Her actions elicited a completely incongruous response: The Vice-President, who doubles as Zambia's Minister of Justice, was enraged by this "un-Zambian" behaviour, a sentiment, it later turned out, shared by the Zambian President. Ms. Kabwela soon found herself on trial for " distributing obscene materials." The judge later acquitted Ms. Kabwela.

And that, you would have have thought, was the end of that. Unfortunately, it wasn't. During the trial, the Post had published an article by Prof. Muna Ndulo, a distinguished academic at Cornell Law School, who also happens to be Zambian. The Post was then charged with contempt of court for publishing comments on a court case that was sub judice. The trial ended earlier this week: the Post was found guilty and Fred M'membe, its editor-in-chief, was sentenced to jail for four months with hard labour. Mr. M'membe, whatever his other qualities might be, is certainly a man of remarkable moral courage. As I write this, Mr. M'membe is already behind bars, although he is sure to appeal his sentence.

Sadly this entire episode is only part of a growing catalogue of the Zambian government's absurd and paranoid actions against its perceived enemies. A truly free society is impossible unless the members of that society are able to freely comment upon and discuss their government's performance. It is counter-productive for any government to deal with unpleasant messages by killing innocent messengers.

Updates (8 June 2010):

  1. Fred M'membe has been released on bail.
  2. Prof. Muna Ndulo has analysed the judge's decision.

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