In Zambia, photos of childbirth spark controversy

The photograph is a testament to human suffering, so sad you can't look at it twice. Or it's shocking pornography. In Zambia, that's a matter of very contentious debate.

A woman lies on the ground in the image, midway through delivering a baby. The infant, born feet first, is dead from suffocation, the head not yet out of the womb.

The photograph was one of three taken in June by the woman's husband outside a hospital in Lusaka, the capital, during a prolonged nurses strike. The mother had already been turned away by two clinics and couldn't get care at the hospital.

When the news editor of the independent Zambian daily the Post, Chansa Kabwela, looked at the photograph of the dead child, she wanted to cry.

The paper decided all three photos were too shocking to be published, so Kabwela sent them to Zambia's vice president, health minister, secretary to the Cabinet and two women's advocacy organizations. For that, the 29-year-old editor was charged with circulating pornography and faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Her trial was to resume today and is expected to end Sept. 8.

"The pictures are shocking," Kabwela said. "There was no way we could publish them. [But] I thought we needed to do something to ensure that the problems were solved.

"In the letter I was just bringing the desperate situation to the attention of the government," she added. "I thought they'd appreciate the problem and find a way of sorting out the situation."

Media advocates see Kabwela's arrest as political, after the Post ran a series of editorials critical of the government's handling of the health crisis. Critics say media freedom in Zambia has been eroding since the death a year ago of President Levy Mwanawasa, who supported a free press, attacked corruption and called for democracy in neighboring Zimbabwe.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the Post, which is often critical of government corruption, had been intimidated on six occasions in the first five months of the year.

Two weeks after Kabwela sent out her letter, President Rupiah Banda called a news conference to condemn the photos as pornography and urge police action. Kabwela was later called to a police station and charged.

One of the desks Kabwela's letter landed on belonged to Nawina Hagwagwa, the secretary of Cabinet Secretary Joshua Kanganja. She screamed when she saw the photos.

"Kimitolo!" Hagwagwa shouted, meaning "Taboo!"

"I screamed and started weeping because they were horrifying," Hagwagwa, 48, said in court evidence this month. She said she was so shocked she couldn't make her boss his usual cup of tea and failed to date-stamp the letter. Hagwagwa said the photos made her feel embarrassed and naked.

In Zambian culture, birth is often regarded as a taboo area to be managed by females. The only males who might be present are medical staff.

Kabwela is a mother of two who says she respects traditional Zambian culture but also holds Western values. She was born in Lusaka but spent most of her childhood in rural northern Zambia.

She believes that sending the photos to government officials was not distributing pornography. She argues that the problem was the strike that deprived the woman of care, not the photos that captured her anguish.

"That woman was outside. It's not like someone went into a hospital and photographed her there," Kabwela said in a telephone interview.

"The woman herself had no privacy. She was robbed of her dignity.

"I think childbirth is very sacred. Now, to have that poor woman who had a chance to give life to that baby, to see her lying on the ground. . . ." She paused, struggling for words. "I couldn't believe that woman had gone through that. I was really touched. I felt bad. It was just shocking."

Kabwela said she felt harassed when she was charged with circulating obscene material with an intent to corrupt public morals.

"Someone loses a baby and [people] want to talk about tradition. Yes, childbirth is sacred. But life is also sacred and a life was lost."

The Zambia National Women's Lobby, one of the two women's groups that received the photos, initially found them demeaning and complained to the Post's Press Freedom Committee. But the group later retracted its criticisms and praised Kabwela for her action in publicizing the crisis.

Journalists and activists recently staged a march in the capital to protest the decline of media freedom after two journalists were assaulted July 29, allegedly by members of the ruling party. The Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zambia has documented 21 cases of violence against or intimidation of journalists this year.


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