ON the morning of Tuesday, June 9, a man walked into the offices of the Post Newspapers with digital images of a woman in a labour process that had gone terribly wrong and requiring the urgent attention of medical experts.
The woman's child had come out feet first but its head got stuck up the birth canal and died of suffocation. The woman's life was now on the line, too.
But this was at the height of one of the longest and most devastating industrial strikes involving health workers since the country's independence. And nowhere had the impact of the month-long work stoppage been more visible than at the country's largest health facility, the University Teaching Hospital (UTH).
Some wards at the hospital had been emptied as patients were sent home for want of medical staff to attend to them. The hospital's long hallways looked even longer and eerie without the hundreds of uniformed nurses that traverse its labyrinth of corridors and stairways each day.
There were a number of heart-rending accounts from various parts of the country about the sufferings of patients, but none of those had been captured on camera like that of the woman and her dead child in the car park of UTH.
Alarmed by the extent of the human suffering brought about by the strike, Post news editor, Chansa Kabwela, sent copies of the images of the woman and her dead child to Vice-President George Kunda with a letter urging his urgent intervention to end the nurses' strike. Similar mail were also sent to five other relevant offices, including some women's organisations and the Catholic Church.
On Wednesday June 24, at a press conference at State House, the President responded to that concern. He was livid. He ordered the arrest of the people involved in the circulation of what he termed pornographic pictures.
On Monday July 13, Kabwela was arrested and charged with circulating obscene material. The mother-of-two faced up to five years in prison if convicted.
The trial of the 30-year-old editor generated a lot of public interest.
Each time her case came up, scores of people crammed into Courtroom 3, following the proceedings, which were interspersed with melodramatic moments, with keen interest.
Courtroom 3 is one of the many courtrooms at the new Magistrates' Complex in Lusaka.
The room itself looks austere like it has been stripped of something, and the only picture frame on the wall bears a stern portrait of President Rupiah Banda, as if keeping a watchful eye on the magistrate to obey his orders.
He had to be here, anyway.
In the dock, the amiable face of the accused waited the turn of each of the 10 witnesses summoned by the state to testify against her.
And sometimes when the witnesses crumbled during cross-examination - like some actor who forgets a line on stage - I wondered who should really be standing trial, the face on the wall, or the one in the dock?
Then there were those faces that had become so regular during the trial - musicians, civil society representatives and some opposition political party members. Some were just self-styled activists lending their voice to the cause of justice.
Only two principle faces were missing in Courtroom 3. The poor unidentified woman who could not get medical attention at her most critical hour because of a failed health system; and that nameless child whose little feet touched Earth, but whose face the world never got to see. That child whose voice was silenced before she could give her first cry, but whose blood now screamed for justice.
When the magistrate finally handed down his verdict on Wednesday, November 18, the faces in the auditorium beamed with relief, but the one on the wall looked sterner still.
And the spotlight that both the local and international media had focused on Courtroom 3 went black.
Seldom do journalists make headlines, especially in such a big way. And when they do, they find themselves unaccustomed to being the centre, not the conduit, of the story. The common thing for many is to recoil and avoid the very establishment they belong to - too reluctant to be on the opposite end of the microphone.
In the following interview, Kabwela shares her feelings and insights about the case that many international media termed, 'The porn trial'.
When the President expressed his anger and outrage at those pictures, did you think it would end up into such a high-profile trial?
At that moment, I didn't think it was going to be as big as turned out to be. But the reaction from the President was a shock. Why? Because that matter was private. When the letter was written and the photos were sent to the six offices, The Post did not publish any story concerning that. We did not even indicate anywhere in our paper that we had received those images and that we had written a letter.
Everything that was done was private. So for him to have brought up that matter at a press conference... I think that was very shocking to me. And actually that was the only response we got from the government, because after I wrote the letter on behalf of The Post to the Vice-President, there was no feedback from the government.
The only feedback was from the President and at a press conference. So it was shocking, really. I didn't know what the President was thinking when he made those remarks. I cannot understand why to him that appeared to be pornography.
Were you surprised that the President was the one to bring such a serious charge against you?
Very surprised. I was very surprised. Actually those photos were sent to the Vice-President so if I expected any response or any comment on the matter...it should have been from the Vice-President. Even then, I never expected the reaction to be made public.
I expected the reaction in writing or at least on the phone like the way some women's organisations did - some of them put it in writing, some of them phoned. That is what I expected and not at a press conference.
First of all, he was talking about pictures that people hadn't seen, because those pictures were not published anywhere, and they will never be published anywhere. So even now people are asking 'how were the pictures; where can we find them?'.
But those are pictures that were never published, so the fact that he made it public was very shocking to me because it is a matter that we never intended to make public at any given time. It will forever be a shock to me that there was such an outburst from the head of state.
You have always insisted that your intention was to alert the government to the dire situation prevailing in our hospitals during the nurses' strike. How do you feel that they used your 'good intention' against you?
I feel very bad, not just as a journalist working for The Post, but even as an individual. I feel violated. I feel harassed. I was vilified. In this whole thing I was painted black, you know; not so much of a Zambian who is deeply rooted in culture.
They may not have said that, but the statements which were made in connection with culture, morality throughout the trial really made me appear as though I was from another planet and not earth.
With no morals…
Exactly. Because they raised issues of culture, of morality... And I think the way the whole thing turned out has been very shocking to me, because I never expected at one point that that letter would bring such a negative reaction. If you look at those images, there was a problem in those pictures. And even when the decision was made to send the images to alert these people...
Yes, there was a strike and the unions and the government were already sitting to try and find a solution to the problem. But that picture, when it was brought to our attention, it put a face to the problem on the ground. We were able to see the extent to which people had gone in terms of suffering.
I know there's been an argument that the strike was already being addressed when the letter was written, but that picture was a reminder to say 'look you people don't take long in your negotiations, this is what is happening to the ordinary people'. Now, to get such a reaction where the picture is described pornographic; where people care so much about the person who took the picture and not what happened to the woman in the picture...
My mind fails to comprehend. I can't really understand why people looked at that picture and saw pornography, instead of the problem which was there - the woman whose life was at risk. The baby... That baby died that night. I don't know why people couldn't focus on that other than the fact that a picture was taken.
Do you feel that you were unfairly treated by those in authority?
I was unfairly treated. Badly treated, actually. You don't shoot the messenger. If someone brings a message, sit down, look at the message and try and find ways of sorting out whatever problem is before you. You see, I felt very bad that the police were used in the process. I ended up being summoned.
I had to go to the police station to give a statement, my fingerprints were taken and I was later arrested like I was some kind of a criminal, you know. And yet I was just a person who was trying to alert the government to what was going on. Or, since they claim that they were already aware, I was trying to show them the extent of the suffering.
Because during that period, I can only imagine how many other people went through what that woman went through. That's one picture taken, but we are talking about the entire country; a strike in government hospitals.
How many poor people suffered? How many expectant mothers during that period were unable to get healthcare? How many babies died because there was no one to attend to them?
I think that is what really pains me... when I look at what I did and what I got in the end.
Are you bitter after what you have gone through?
I'm not. I think to me this is a very big lesson. From every experience, I believe the most important thing is the lesson you draw from it. I don't know if I will really help myself if I dwell so much on the pain or on the negative.
I take it that everything I go through in life is a lesson. So, the only thing that can build me is the lesson that I get from this particular experience. I may fall down as a human being, but what matters is how well I rise after falling down.
Do you ever regret the action you took?
I don't. Because even if I was an ordinary citizen and not a journalist, and I was presented with such a situation, I would handle it in the same way. I know there's been a lot of criticism.
Huh, a lot of people don't agree with the approach that I had used to alert the authorities and I respect their opinion. We look at issues differently. I think all of us as citizens of this country, citizens of the world have a duty to humanity; we have a duty to help each other.
There's been an argument that I could have just written a letter without attaching the photos, but people already knew that there was a strike, so my letter would have been like any other letter which is taken to any office when there is a problem. It would have been like any other letter of complaint. But the pictures made a difference because they showed the impact.
That picture was a very, very sad picture. It depicted a real situation of what exactly had happened at the University Teaching Hospital...outside not inside the hospital. So, I have no problem with the means I used to communicate that particular problem. Yes, the picture was grotesque...it was disturbing. And I stated that in the letter.
But I think we just need to face the truth. That is exactly what happened. I know the truth hurts at times, but we have to face it.
You say the picture was grotesque. How did you feel when you first looked at that picture?
I looked at it once and I didn't want to look at it again. It's a very sad picture... I'm a mother, I know what it means to be a mother and I couldn't believe that that woman had gone through such a painful, painful, painful process without any help. For your own information, that woman in those pictures had gone round to two clinics in Lusaka and was unable to get help, and she ended up at UTH where she couldn't get help.
It was only after a lot of manoeuvres and a series of phone calls that they managed to arrange a few medical personnel who attended to her and she had a Caesarian Section but the baby had already died.
So you are talking about hours of moving at the back of a van in the night through the process of labour, until you end up having an operation. And so you have to nurse an operation, and yet there is no baby. I think for me, I couldn't believe that a human being could be subjected to that, when we have hospitals and clinics. That picture brought a lot of sadness to me.
Did you have confidence, then, that the people you sent the letter and pictures to would act responsibly and address the situation in the health sector?
I had confidence that they would do that, because it is their responsibility, that is why they hold those offices - to serve the people; to ensure that they give people the basic services that they need.
We thought that by sending those images to these offices, these people would be moved to try and ensure that they find a way of compelling the health workers to return to work because people had suffered.
And the same that we had received those images, there was a report on Phoenix where a man from Ndola had just witnessed a woman giving birth right at the bus stop which is opposite Ndola Central Hospital. And this man was shocked, you could hear from his tone on news that the situation had gotten out of hand.
This woman had been turned away from Ndola Central Hospital and just as she was walking to get on a bus, she fell to the ground and the people who were with her couldn't do anything apart from helping her to deliver right there...
Yes, a picture could not have been taken there, but it was in public. Is that what we want as country? Is that the culture that we are talking about? Is that the privacy that was so much talked about in this case?
It is undeniable that your prosecution was in part influenced by the President when he addressed that press conference in June. Before the trial began, did you think the Judiciary would act independently and give you a fair trial?
Yes I did. I didn't do anything wrong. So I knew very well that...that is why if you remember even the time when police recorded a warn and caution statement from me, I had indicated that I waited for my day in court, because I knew that I had not done anything wrong.
Then why do you think the government was so eager to push this case against you?
I think it's hatred and intolerance towards The Post. I don't think it's a secret that the government hates The Post and its editorial stance.
We're condemned on a daily basis and a lot has been said about The Post. And even when you look at issues of regulation that they have started talking about very much, it's purely aimed at The Post. But we have no apologies to make in terms of our editorial stance because we're guided by our mission statement and a policy to work for the people.
Do you think the whole prosecution should not have taken place?
It shouldn't. It should have never happened. Like the magistrate correctly put it in his ruling, my letter was very clear. My letter was aimed at bringing a serious situation to the attention of the authorities. So, there was no way that someone could misunderstand such an open letter. It's a pity that this whole thing ended up being politicised. It should never have started.
This was purely a private matter and had the President not talked about that issue, no one would have known that The Post had those images, and that The Post sent those images to the Vice-President and the other office-bearers. But that matter is now in the public domain because the President talked about it. I don't want to believer that what The Post did was out of malice, like some people have tried to suggest.
You sat in the dock for many hours during the trial, listening to testimonies from the 10 witnesses that were brought against you. Sometimes you would smile, laugh or just stare into the ceiling. What was going through your mind in those moments?
I think the last three months have been trying. I went through a difficult time. First of all, I couldn't understand what I was doing in court, because I knew what I had done and there was nothing wrong in my action. There was no ill-intention. My motive was very clear, according to that letter. So, to find myself in court, before people... ten people who had been lined up to explain the effect that the images had on them... It was a very difficult period for me.
Did you ever cry?
No. Not even one day. I never shed a tear. But, you see... I cannot describe how I felt in one sentence. Like, the way some witnesses who would come and say they've been practicing for the past twenty-six years as a gynecologist or obstetrician and then they look at those images and then they shed a tear. And then, they say... The only thing that came to mind was the issue of, huh, the patient's rights. And then I'm left to wonder, here is a gynecologist - what do gynecologists do?
They deliver babies. So why should you cry? When you say you cried, did you cry because that lady had found herself in that situation or you cried because she had been photographed? I want to believe that that is not a rare sight for gynecologists. But of course people are entitled to their own opinion and I fully respect that.
Others raised issues of privacy, what privacy was there to talk about? That picture was not taken in a maternity ward. It wasn't even taken inside a hospital; it was taken outside. So if you want to talk about a person's loss of privacy, who do you blame? Do you blame the person who took the photograph or you blame the person who denied that woman access to healthcare where they could have their privacy.
What privacy is there in a parking lot. So even as people were talking about issues of culture and morals, issues of a taboo... If as a country we value culture very much and we want to promote morality, then let's provide the necessary services for the people. Let's provide medical care so that people are not exposed.
What were some of your frustrations during the trial?
I think first of all the whole case was an inconvenience. Um, I know that the state had indicated that they would bring ten witnesses.
And I knew that the state was trying to establish a case in this particular matter, but I felt very sad, you know... in situations where people were lying just to build the case. People are entitled to their opinion and I don't blame anyone for having been told or for having appeared in court for that particular case, but there were instances where people would give misleading statements.
For example, there was one witness who had said 'the later I had written was meaningless because it was done at a time when the strike had been resolved. There were such wild statements where I would sit back and wonder as to what these people were trying to do to me. And then there was another line that it was difficult to tell weather that picture was taken at UTH or it was just taken somewhere else.
You know, there were such statements from the witnesses. I think those were moments when I was really sad. I would come out of the courtroom feeling really, really bad that someone would look at that picture and start interpreting the image.
For heaven's sake you can't look at those pictures and start thinking about what time that woman started off from home. Whether they left home when the process had already begun, as long as there is a hospital where they will be attended to they will be fine.
Had you been convicted, you faced up to five years in prison. Did you at any one time think about how you would spend those five years?
I never really thought about what I would do if I were convicted. I knew that I was innocent, there was nothing wrong that I had done.
But when you're faced with such a prospect, it is something that will come to your mind, because it's hanging on your head. But I never really imagined as to what I would do during that period. But of course there were times when I would remind myself that the charge I was facing carried a sentence of five years, and five years is a long time.
I'm only human and there were times when I would think about the case and try to imagine the worst that could come out of it. But I think what kept me strong, what kept me going was the fact that I did not do anything wrong.
You received a lot of support from a cross-section of society. How much support did you get from your own family, your husband?
I think the last three months have been very hard for us as a family. You know, we had to try very hard to live normally, but we couldn't avoid the fact that there was a court case pending.
My family has been very supportive throughout all this ordeal. They always used to encourage me that everything would end on a good note. My husband has been there for me.
He is a very loving husband, but I know that it must have been very, very difficult for him to even imagine that the charge his wife was facing carried a jail term of five years. Five years was very difficult for us to comprehend as a couple, but he has been very understanding throughout the whole case and he encouraged me to be strong.
And even just the ordinary Zambians; people would turn up, leaving everything they were doing just to come and sit at court. There's been so much support, not just from Zambia but even beyond borders. That was one of the things that kept me strong. That's one of the reasons why I could even afford a smile as I sat in the dock. That support meant a lot to me.
How did your faith help you through this ordeal? I know that you are Catholic.
I have a deep-seated faith in God and in everything I do, I always put God first. So even through this very difficult period, I always put God first and that strengthened me.
Were you surprised by the kind of euphoria that your trial attracted?
Yes and no. I knew that there would be a lot of interest, especially that we were talking about images that a lot of people had not seen. So people were curious and I knew that this case would attract a lot of attention, but, probably not to that extent.
Do you think the hype was also created by the fact that it is the President who brought up this matter?
Mostly, yes. He made it public at that press conference and I'm sure a lot of people were listening to him and they started following the matter keenly. In some way, yes, I can say the politics at play created the hype. And on the other hand, we are talking about a human rights issue and so it generated a lot of interest from the international media.
Are you comfortable with the attention you've been getting both from the local and international media?
I'm not comfortable because I'm a very private person. I think my job is to gather news for public consumption. So it has been very difficult for me to sort of try and adjust and be on the other end of the table. I'm used to asking the questions, so to find myself in a situation where people were asking me questions, I'm giving interviews... I think it's been very unusual for me and quite an experience. I'm trying to adjust, but... I think I miss my private life.
Have you tried to google your name of late?
I have. I have been following what's happening; I've seen the articles that have been written about me and I've also seen some fan bases on Facebook...
And that doesn't excite you?
I think I'm just humbled, really, for the support. But for the people who have sort of become my fans, although I'm a very private person, it just shows the amount of interest that people had in the case.
Has this trial changed you as a person in any way?
I think the case has been an eye-opener, it's been a big lesson in so many ways. I think the case has taught me to be more accommodating, more tolerant... And when you look at what I did and the reaction from the government was a big lesson as to how someone can just deliberately decide to misunderstand a straightforward issue. It also showed me how, as a country, journalists have a very long way to go in terms of trying to bring issues to the table.
As a mother yourself, how do you feel about the real subjects of this case - the woman and her dead child?
I feel very bad, first of all, that a life was lost. That baby had a chance to survive if only that woman had access to medical care, but the baby ended up suffocating in the process of looking for help. That woman... I can only imagine what she went through.
Who do you think is the true victor in this whole matter?
The woman in the picture, as well as many other Zambians who suffered during that period of the strike. That woman in the picture, if she had money, she was not going to end up in a parking lot; she would have gone to a private hospital and she could have delivered that baby. So, for me, I don't think that acquital was a victory for The Post or for me as the accused person. It was for that woman and many others who suffered during that period.
Do you think justice has been delivered in this matter, notwithstanding, that a child died?
In some way, yes. Justice has been delivered, but you cannot be blind to the fact that a life was lost.
If you met that woman in the photo today, what would you say to her?
It would be very difficult for me to find the right words to say to that woman, who went through so much pain. But I would encourage her to keep the faith and not lose hope. Hope in the sense that there is no permanent moment in life. There are always better days. I think hope is very important, because hope floats.
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