Outcry after Zambian editor labelled a 'pornographer'

One of Zambia's leading journalists will be in the dock tomorrow, accused of being a pornographer, a charge that carries a five-year sentence if she's convicted. The case against Chansa Kabwela has provoked an outcry in her home country and is stirring fears that one of Africa's success stories could be heading off the rails.

Ms Kabwela's career as a "circulator of obscene images", as prosecutors allege, began in June when two people arrived at the offices of The Post newspaper in Lusaka.

They were carrying photographs of one of their relatives, a pregnant woman, who had been forced to give birth in the car park of Lusaka's main hospital. The mother and her husband had been turned away already at two clinics before doctors refused to help her at the University Training Hospital.

Lying amid the parked cars the young woman, whose name has been withheld, had to attempt a breech birth as her baby came out feet first. The baby suffocated and died before doctors finally intervened.

Ms Kabwela, the news editor at The Post remembers the photographs being delivered: "The health workers strike was going on for a month already at that stage and there was a real crisis," she said by telephone from Lusaka.

"We quickly decided that the pictures were too gruesome to publish, so we took the decision to send them to a few people who were in a position to do something about it, to highlight what was happening in our hospitals, especially to the poor."

She chose the vice president, George Kunda's office, the health minister, two other senior officials and two women's rights groups. The point, Ms Kabwela says, was to push for an end to the dispute.

Instead of taking action on the hospital crisis, President Rupiah Banda called a news conference where he vowed that the person who had sent the images would be prosecuted. The young editor was arrested and charged under arcane pornography laws with "circulating obscene images likely to corrupt public morals".

The latest hearing in the case against Ms Kabwela comes shortly after the surprise acquittal of former president Frederick Chiluba, a verdict that was greeted with dismay by anti-graft campaigners across Africa.

The ex-president was accused of looting $500,000 from state coffers and a UK court had already ruled that he had diverted hundreds of millions of pounds from the Zambian treasury into his accounts abroad.

Yesterday, the respected head of Zambia's anti-corruption task force, Maxwell Nkole, was abruptly sacked.

The dismissal came after his office had refused to restore former president Chiluba's immunity against prosecution.

"It's very clear that we're seeing a drift towards a one party state," said one political analyst in Lusaka, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Zambia, despite its ingrained poverty, had been credited as a stabilising influence in a region dominated by its southern neighbour Zimbabwe.

The death from a stroke last year of Levy Mwanawasa, who succeeded Mr Chiluba as president has been a massive set back to reformists in Zambia and the wider region, the analyst said.