Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pictures as Protest

By Katie McNish

The New York Times
last week reported on a dicey situation in Zambia, where a journalist's effort at activism backfired and landed her in jail.

Chansa Kabwela, the news editor of the Zambian daily The Post - which has been critical of the impoverished country's "corrupt" regime - was concerned about the national health care worker's strike. She was approached by a distraught man bearing photos of a gruesome incident: his wife, naked outside a local hospital where she had been denied medical attention by striking workers, giving birth to a child who died hours later. According to Ms. Kabwela, the man hoped that if The Post published the photos, more tragedies like his family's could be avoided. She and The Post's other editors decided that the images were too disturbing for publication, but felt they were important given the dire situation. On June 10, Ms. Kabwela sent copies of the photos to several women's groups and public officials, including the Vice President and Health Minister, urging them to "take quick action and end this strike.”

But, Ms. Kabwela told the Times, “the government deliberately decided to misunderstand my intention,” - to draw attention to the suffering caused by the strike - and instead dubbed the images "pornographic." On June 13, she was arrested and charged with "distributing obscene materials in order to corrupt the morals of society." She was released on bond but faces up to five years in prison.

Some have speculated that this incident has been a government response to The Post's negative editorials, though statements by both the government officials and some of women's groups that received the photos pointed only to the woman's nakedness, highlighting her lack of "privacy and dignity."

Ms. Kabwela issued an apology and the strike has since ended, but the war of words between the The Post and the Zambian government continues. Recent editorials have called President Rupiah Banda and his government's response to the incident an "abuse of power."

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