Friday, September 11, 2009

Pain and porn: Zambian news editor on trial

by Laura Smith-Gary

[Trigger warning]

Chansa Kabwela, women's rights advocate, mother of two, and news editor of Zambia's largest independent newspaper, The Post, is being tried for distributing pornography, a charge that carries a sentence of up to five years in jail. Two of her colleagues for The Post, journalist Muna Ndula and editor-in-chief Fred M'membe, have been held in contempt of court for publishing an article in her defense, and activist supporters of Kabwela have been banned from court after some got into a scuffle with government supporters. This apparent governmental attack on Zambia's already limited free press (see the BBC country profile and the CIA factbook) is a blatant exploitation of the suffering of Zambian women and their struggle for justice and care.

The struggle began with nurses, on strike trying to obtain higher pay from the government. The strike quickly led to widespread failure of the Zambian medical system. The Post, incidentally, frequently wrote in support of the nurses and their campaign and was critical of the government, as per usual.

The deadlock between the nurses and the government probably led to hundreds, even thousands, of personal tragedies. We know the story of one. A pregnant Zambian woman went into labor, and after being turned away from two unstaffed clinics, made her way to the main hospital in Lusaka, Zambia's capital. There, she was again turned away due to lack of staffing -- but her delivery began in earnest on the hospital grounds. Her baby was breech, feet first, so the labor was a particularly complicated one. By the time a doctor came to her and operated, the baby had suffocated, its body delivered and its head lodged in the birth canal.

The woman's family went to Chansa Kabwela with a picture, a graphic depiction of the medically unattended attempt at delivery. Especially given the baby's senseless death, it was no doubt an extremely disturbing image. Ms. Kabwela did not publish the picture, but instead sent it to several women's rights groups and members of the government, including the office of the Vice-President, along with a letter asking them to end the strike and have nurses return to work. Her purpose, she has said, was to show the human cost of the strike and the urgency for resolution.

President Rupiah Banda, deliberately ignoring the wider implications of the image and the story behind it, seized the opportunity to attack the newspaper that had been critical of him. He furiously declared the picture to be pornographic and ordered a police investigation -- and now, Ms. Kabwela faces jail time.

I don't think that President Banda was intentionally building his attack on the suffering of women, but the gendered aspects of this story are unavoidable. The opportunity he seized was borne out of the desperation of women, and one woman's attempt to bring this desperation to the attention of those in power.

Because women had no power. The nurses, whose struggle against the government for more pay precipitated the medical crisis, are largely female: I do not know enough to evaluate whether they were being steeply underpaid or not, but a nearly month-long strike in a country with 50% unemployment is extremely serious business. Would a strike of that magnitude in a male-dominated profession have run a similar course? I genuinely do not know.

The mother, a victim of this struggle whose pain I can't even begin to imagine, is female. It's striking to me that it was her family, not her, who brought the picture to Ms. Kabwela. It is very possible she wanted this photo of her pain to be used to lobby for the end to the strike, and her relatives were acting on her behalf -- but the lack of explicit agency on her part makes me extremely uncomfortable. Her physical, emotional, and mental pain must be excruciating -- she's not just a concept, she's a person, a person who was just forced to feel her baby die inside her. She is more than a concept of "female pain," she's an individual.

The news editor who cared was female -- and I imagine it was her sex, as well as her position, that gave the family the confidence to approach her. Though the government may be attempting to attack The Post through her, it is this female editor who will, if convicted, bear the cost of the attack. She did have some amount of power, but as soon as she attempted to exercise it she became target.

Finally, it is an image of a female body, and sexualized contempt for the female body, that became the government's weapon. The attack would not have found purchase without the conviction that a picture of female genitals, even in the process of giving birth, is obscene and arousing. In this article, a female assistant to the Secretary to the Cabinet, is quoted as saying the images were so taboo she cried and forgot to make her boss his tea, and that it was difficult to give him the photos because it was not "in line with tradition for men to see such things." I understand that in many cultures and communities the delivery of infants is a strictly female affair, and that a man witnessing childbirth or even photographs of childbirth is taboo, and shameful. But pornographic? Classifying this as pornography indicates to me that men are assumed to see women in purely sexual terms, and demonstrates a commitment to ignore women's real agony in favor of focusing on men's supposed shame, disgust, or possible arousal when faced with this agony.

For the crime of not allowing women to suffer invisibly, and attempting to privately urge lawmakers to work for the wellbeing of all those in need of medical care, a female news editor is condemned to being not only punished but seeing her situation used by the government to strike a blow against non-state-owned press. Chansa Kebwala is charged with "distributing obscene material with intent to corrupt public morals." She is not guilty.

8 Comments:

At September 15, 2009 at 5:09 PM , OpenID earwicga said...

I just wrote a really long comment which deleted itself when I tried to post :(

I am sure you have read all the pieces on The Post relating to this case, so just wanted to post the link http://www.postzambia.com/index.php?searchword=chansa+kabwela&option=com_search&Itemid=

This case has been adjourned until September 23 due to some kind of legality which I can't pretend to understand.

Right, will save this comment and try to post again!

 
At September 15, 2009 at 5:44 PM , OpenID earwicga said...

I have looked at the legalise again and I was wrong. It is not Chansa Kabwela's trial that has been adjourned, it is Fren M'membe's trial that has been suspended.

 
At September 15, 2009 at 7:46 PM , Blogger LSG said...

I'm sorry about your comment, earwicga!

I was just suffering pangs of conscience because I realized I hadn't ended up linking to any of the Post articles...they're much more primary-source than the articles I did link to. The link you posted has 'em all, which is great for anyone who wants to read more about it. Thanks!

As well as I could decipher the article, it sounds like the judges want to study the case and become familiar with it before hearing the arguments. It's a little more complicated than that, though...I'm having a hard time figuring out exactly what's going on!

I'm genuinely surprised that this hasn't been made a bigger deal of in the U.S. It seems like the kind of sensational story the media would love -- obscenity! tragedy! suppression of free speech! political machinations! I do fear that it's because we're just not interested in countries that don't fit into our Good Country/Evil Oppressive Country paradigm -- Muslim Yemen, Christian Zambia doesn't. (I'm as guilty as anyone. Until I saw this on BBC news and started reading about it, I knew nothing about Zambia except that it was in sub-Saharan Africa)

 
At September 16, 2009 at 4:33 AM , OpenID earwicga said...

I think the under-reporting is exactly because it isn't an "evil" muslim country. In the UK the under-reporting can also be put down to that Zambia was one of our imperialist "colonies"!

I had said in my original comment, and you reminded me, I knew absolutely nothing about Zambia either and spent ages reading up about the country. Seems that from independence until recently they had a dictator with communist leanings, and now they have another clown!

Glad to salve your conscience :)

 
At September 17, 2009 at 9:59 AM , OpenID earwicga said...

Laura, have you seen this site? They have written about the journalist aspect of this case:

http://www.rsf.org/Police-launch-manhunt-before.html

 
At September 17, 2009 at 1:15 PM , Anonymous LSG said...

I hadn't seen that particular article, earwicga (btw, Reporters Without Borders seems like an awesome organization! I'll have to start reading more from them), but it seems pretty clear that for the President, this is all part of a power play to undermine and weaken The Post, which has been very critical of him in the past on a variety of topics. Shouldn't such a blatant attack on the free press get international attention, even if nurses and a medical crisis doesn't?

On the other hand, this is inspiring, in some small way -- the fact that the President is going to such extraordinary lengths to silence M'membe and his staff (a manhunt? really? after Kabwela had turned herself in peacefully?) seems to show he's scared. So apparently the Post is a threat...

 
At September 17, 2009 at 1:20 PM , Anonymous LSG said...

I just realized I didn't look at the date of that article -- it's about a different incident! I stand by my previous comment, the current situation is definitely a power play -- this is just more evidence that the government has been gunning for M'membe for a while now. This time, though, there wasn't a manhunt. Goodness.

 
At September 17, 2009 at 10:55 PM , OpenID earwicga said...

Oops, I hadn't noticed the date either!

But as the only independent paper in Zambia then yes, these trials can only be seen as a power play as you put it.

I can't help compare this with the Lubna Hussein trial in Sudan.

I've only just found RSF recently and they do indeed seem awesome.

 

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