By Peter Townson
Describing what inspired her to choose journalism as a career, Mwape Kumwenda cites her “passion to defend the rights of the oppressed” as the primary factor.
“I wanted to bring change through an industry in which a journalist can tell life-changing stories – stories that will inspire hope and stir change in the lives of many,” she told Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) in a recent interview.
Kumwenda has been lauded for her investigative work, and in 2015 she received the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism award for her brave and pioneering reporting in Zambia.
The poverty in her country and the sense of injustice at the severe imbalance in the distribution of wealth contributed towards her desire to dig deeper, and find out the truth behind how resources were being utilised and who was gaining from them.
Similarly, the general lack of justice and the prevalence of impunity throughout society have driven Kumwenda throughout her career.
“There is a lack of balance in the administration of justice in my country, where those privileged despite being guilty of crime still go free while those vulnerable are jailed even when innocent - I thought by reporting on such oppression positive change will be seen.”
The situation in Zambia
While there are no specific issues deemed particularly taboo or out of bounds for Zambian journalists, Kumwenda explains that a number of outdated legal provisions lead to general censorship and restrictions on journalists.
“Limitations come into play because of certain old provisions that impinge on press freedom.
“For example, a report on corrupt government officials whose cases are dealt with in secret, would require incriminating documents from investigators, but this could cost you prosecution for publication of classified information,” she told DCMF.
“This provision is used against journalists and so many shy away from exposing corruption if officials have not issued public statements, as it could place them at risk of prosecution for sedition or publication of false news with intent to cause alarm and fear to the public,” she explained.
“The law technically bars us from effectively reporting on issues perceived to be against the state.”
According to Kumwenda, the most important step to be taken to improve the situation for media freedom in Zambia is nothing particularly groundbreaking; it would simply involve enforcing and applying the laws that already exist within the country’s constitution.
“The most important thing to be done in order to improve our work is enacting the access to information and press freedom laws which have remained on paper for years,” she said, adding “guaranteeing the press self-governance will further make those in public media less influenced by politicians who are in power.”
The current situation means that state media outlets rarely if ever publish stories related to people considered to be on the margins of society.
Kumwenda feels passionately that the views of those less heard are given space in the media: “The current situation can change if journalists are allowed to work independently and professionally.”
She also believes that more needs to be done to protect journalists and to guarantee their safety in the field.
“There is also a need to protect journalists from physical and verbal assault, and this can be done by putting in place policies which will compel employers to provide life insurance cover for workers,” argued Kumwenda, adding “as it stands, the families of journalists who die on duty find it very difficult to get compensation.”
“Centred on nothing but the truth”
“What inspires me to continue with my work is public confidence. Over the years I have gained the trust of many in my country who believe that no matter the situation, if a story is told by me, change is guaranteed.”
This has often proven to be the case in the past, as many of Kumwenda’s stories have gone on to inspire action by the authorities, with reports on corruption leading to high profile sackings, and her work serving to bring major issues to light.
“The community is always supportive of my work because I take time to talk to them and understand their problems before doing stories.”
“Above all my work is centred on nothing but the truth.”
In her quest for the truth, Kumwenda faces a number of challenges, but the most difficult aspect of her work is access to information from government departments and ministries.
“I operate in a country that has not given the media free access to information, no matter how important – in most cases I have to buy information and later protect the identity of my sources, and when a story is told, threats of prosecution are made by those in power.”
This means that gathering enough evidence to back up every aspect of her story becomes even more important than usual, and can often bring threats from those sympathetic to corrupt officials in power.
“What makes me proud about my work is that it never misses the target - if my news report is targeted at getting a response from the president, it does. It gives job satisfaction when your story receives the attention of those in authority – it makes you feel your work is having an impact.”
And in the face of the challenges she has to overcome, Kumwenda’s tenacity and her unwillingness to be prevented in her quest for the truth are among her strongest qualities.
“I am proud that the community can trust the effectiveness of my work because I never stop telling a story until the desired results are scored, or an appropriate explanation is given for the failure to provide solutions,” she explains.
“No one can set limits on me”
“I am looking forward to a time when I will not only report but also be able to provide solutions to problems facing the community,” says Kumwenda.
“I want to reach a point where if people complain of hunger, I will be able to feed them, where if a patient cannot access treatment because of a lack of funds or where if a child cannot go to school because of a lack of resources I will be able to provide something.”
“I want to be able to go to the government and show I have done this to help people, and ask what they have done to help them.
“I also want to be able to provide tangible evidence to help investigators working on corruption cases.
Kumwenda said that it is essential that international attention continues to be placed on countries in which human rights are being violated, to be able to address these crimes.
“It is very important as it opens up opportunities for solutions from abroad which may not be possible to find in our own country,” she said, adding that she often find herself seeking protection from friends outside Zambia if she ever feels in danger.
“The work of a journalist goes beyond borders, and so issues of safety must not be restricted to affected countries, as this may not help in protecting the lives of other freelancers intending to visit such a country.
While there are numerous challenges to carrying out her work in Zambia, Kumwenda says that her gender has never proven itself to be a significant obstacle to her development as a journalist.
“Being a woman does not limit me from achieving anything.
“I believe that no one can set limits for me apart from myself and as I do not set limits on myself, I do not face any difficulties and I am totally ready to do as my work demands,” she said, adding that “often in the most challenging situations, people prefer to work with me than a man.”