Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 14 November 2009

Surreal drama of Zambia 'porn' trial

The trial of a news editor in Zambia, accused of distributing obscene material, is coming to an end. Chansa Kabwela says she sent photos of a woman giving birth without medical help to senior government officials to highlight the effects of a nurses' strike. Jo Fidgen has watched the trial, and reflects on what it reveals about Zambian culture.

Chansa Kabwela, news editor of the Post (image from Post website)
Chansa Kabwela is news editor of Zambia's best-selling newspaper

The arresting officer makes for an arresting sight.

Sharon Zulu strides into the witness box, a strapping woman in gravity-defying heels and a shiny, baby-pink trouser suit. Grace Jones disguised as Shirley Temple. The promise of a grand finale to the prosecution case.

So far, it has amounted to a succession of trembling ministerial secretaries expressing their humiliation and shock that a woman in childbirth, the most private moment of her life, had been photographed.

Shock, not over the fact that she had given birth in a hospital car park. Or that her baby had suffocated. But that the pictures had been seen by men - an absolute taboo.

This is not to say the photographs are not terrible. When I saw them, it took me several seconds to focus, as though my brain was refusing to process the images.

The most graphic shows a woman from the waist down, lying on a plastic sheet, with the bloodied torso of a baby between her thighs. The head is still inside her.

This is what Zambia's President, Rupiah Banda, declared pornographic, when he called for the photographer to be arrested.

Poster girl

But Mrs Zulu has been a police investigator for 19 years. She must have seen a few unpleasant things in her career. Surely, she is not going to be thrown off balance by these photos?

Not for the first time in this trial, my expectations are confounded.

The spectators have been ooh-ing and aah-ing all through the trial, like an audience for a Shakespearean tragi-comedy

Mrs Zulu tells the court that she felt assaulted, disturbed, naked. Upset with the person who had circulated the pictures.

"We are all Zambian here," she says. "We all know this is not allowed in our culture."

I shift uncomfortably, the only non-Zambian in the room. Maybe there are cultural forces at play here beyond my understanding. I scan the public gallery. A pretty unrepresentative lot - the benches are stuffed with pop stars, actors, free speech campaigners and opposition politicians.

The defendant, Chansa Kabwela, news editor of Zambia's best-selling newspaper, The Post, has become the poster girl for anyone who dislikes the government.

The spectators have been "ooh-ing" and "aah-ing" all through the trial, like an audience for a Shakespearean tragi-comedy. Or maybe a Zambian adaptation of Kafka. The magistrate has had to tell them off for intimidating the witnesses.

Rupiah Banda
President Rupiah Banda has described the photos as pornographic

The defence counsel rises to his feet. An imposing man with elegant glasses and a soft voice layered with intellectual menace.

I have watched other witnesses crumple under his cross-examination. The audience holds its breath. We all sense that this will be the climactic scene.

He casually offers her some rope. What prompted this investigation? Was she aware that the president himself had made his position clear? Why did she not interview any of the intended recipients of the photos? Including those who had spoken publicly in support of Chansa Kabwela?

Mrs Zulu folds her arms, pouts, refuses to answer some of the questions, is reprimanded by the magistrate, and pouts some more.

Plot twists

The definition of obscenity employed by the defence is from British law in the 1960s. It talks about corrupting morals by making people homosexual, drug-takers, prostitutes.

A few scattered laughs as the legal extract is read out, but no outrage that an out-of-date law from the old colonial power is being invoked.

Zambia

It seems to me that Zambia's social conservatism is in tune with a Britain that no longer exists.

Defence and witness continue their ill-tempered exchange as to whether the photographs are capable of causing arousal.

It has been a constant theme. One witness almost found herself agreeing that only a lunatic could be turned on by them, but stopped herself when she spotted the president's portrait looming over the magistrate.

Perhaps she was remembering that now infamous news conference when the Zambian leader declared the pictures pornographic.

I have been to see several plays in Lusaka, but none has had the human drama, the plot twists, the surrealism of the performance in Magistrates Court Three.

But I cannot help feeling that the principal character is hiding in the wings.

Fred Mmembe is the editor-in-chief of The Post newspaper. He hates the government and his paper shouts it loud and clear.

I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the whole of Zambia is a political battleground at the moment, and that even in a courtroom, there is no such thing as no man's land

Stage whispers hint that he is the real target. And sure enough, he is soon charged with contempt.

His trial, for an article published about this case, began this week. Of course, that could just be one of those coincidences that good playwrights can get away with.

As we leave court at the end of Mrs Zulu's evidence, one of the defence team comes up to me. "Thanks for your support," he says.

I'm aghast. "I'm not supporting you," I say, pointing at the press bench. "I'm sitting there, I'm neutral."

"You support us just by turning up," he asserts.

And I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the whole of Zambia is a political battleground at the moment, and that even in a courtroom, there is no such thing as no man's land.

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