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Her TV reporting has changed a nation’s sexual-assault policies and challenged state corruption, and she has faced violence for her reporting. ‘Unless the evil of people is exposed, they will continue with it,’ she says

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Journalist Mwape Kumwenda stands outside a market in Chilenje, the neighbourhood where she grew up in Zambia's capital, Lusaka.Edith Sampa Chiliboy/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.

Shooting War, a Globe-produced documentary that pays homage to conflict photographers, made its debut at the Hot Docs festival earlier this month. Learn more about the series. You can also listen to Associated Press photographer Santiago Lyon, featured in the documentary, in the episode of The Decibel at the end of this article.

It was simply a matter of timing that led Mwape Kumwenda into journalism rather than law, her initial choice. She saw both careers giving her the bully pulpit to fight for social justice. But having just completed secondary school, she would have to wait six months before applying to law school; there was no such delay with journalism. Her impatience at wanting to begin advocating for the downtrodden of society was such that she switched career tracks with alacrity and without regret.

What is striking about Ms. Kumwenda’s career path is that she knew what she wanted to achieve even before she even entered the Greenwood Institute in Lusaka, Zambia, to begin her journalism training.

She calls it “solution-seeking journalism,” and she has never wavered from it. It is an approach to journalism that may not win her admirers amongst those in power – which tells her she must be doing something right.

The process begins with her identifying a problem from an array of psychosocial ills invariably affecting less privileged people in Zambian society. Next, she uses her platform as a television presenter to broadcast this problem to the population at large. Many journalists would stop here, but she does not. What comes after is the advocacy component: pursuing positive change with badger-like intensity.

To understand where this resolve comes from, let us go back to Ms. Kumwenda’s childhood. She grew up in a country bedevilled by gender-based violence. Rape, defilement (which Ms. Kumwenda explained is the sexual molestation of children under 15 years of age) and life-threatening battery were common and mostly went unpunished.

At the time, the courts did not pursue cases because the overwhelming majority of women and girls – the children were mostly girls – could not afford legal representation. Moreover, many of the abused women were related to, and often dependent on, the perpetrators, which made them reluctant to report the assault.

Not only was justice being denied to many thousands of victims each year, but the enduring effects of sexual violence hindered women from advancing their careers. The extent of this crisis was captured in a damning 2012 report sponsored by Cornell University titled They Are Destroying Our Futures: Sexual Violence Against Girls in Zambia’s Schools.

This threat was the backdrop to Ms. Kumwenda’s school years. She recalls singing in her school choir, which brought her into contact with drama groups and choirs from other schools. They were asked to compose and perform songs to do with gender-based violence. And as part of this process of educating the youth of Zambia about the dangers they faced, victims of sexual assault were invited to share their stories and experiences.

“I was deeply touched by this,” Ms. Kumwenda recalled to me.

Ms. Kumwenda’s mother was also determined to make her daughter aware of the risks she faced as a schoolgirl. Ms. Kumswenda had an older brother and three younger brothers; in time, two sisters would be born. But the age differences were such that Ms. Kumwenda essentially grew up surrounded by boys. Being the only girl meant she was the focus of much of her mother’s understandable anxiety: “My mother was very strict about how I related to men,” she said.

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Ms. Kumwenda, shown seated in a market area for making stools, helped bring about changes in how Zambia deals with sexual assault.Edith Sampa Chiliboy/The Globe and Mail

When Ms. Kumwenda began her work as a journalist 15 years back, she confronted head-on the twin challenges of rampant sexual violence in Zambian society and the virtual impunity that perpetrators enjoyed.

Her television reportage was integral to Zambian media becoming an agent for change, by giving a voice and a face to victims, bringing a taboo topic out of the shadows, exposing perpetrators to the harsh light of public opinion, and thereby spurring government authorities into taking action.

As a result of her advocacy, police are now stationed in hospitals to deal expeditiously with sexual-assault cases. The government has established fast-track courts to ensure perpetrators do not escape justice by endless postponement and delays to court procedures a favourite tactic used in the past to circumvent accountability. Victim support units have been set up. And, importantly, traditional leaders in rural regions, whose tribal sway can exceed the influence of the central government, have been brought into the fold to support these initiatives.

Many abused women and girls have been helped by Ms. Kumwenda. She cites the case of a 14-year-old girl victimized by a prophet. Self-styled prophets claim to receive messages directly from God and as such are respected members of Zambian society, often allied to churches. Their special powers are supposed to include, among others, divining the future; discerning a person’s hidden thoughts; and making spiritual diagnoses to explain negative life events, such as illness or the breakup of a marriage. This formidable array of self-professed capabilities gives them a profound hold over their believers and considerable influence within their communities.

None of this deterred Ms. Kumwenda. Her reporting revealed that the girl in question had been raped, acquired a sexually transmitted disease and fallen pregnant.

Her exposé of the child’s trauma and the perpetrator played a pivotal role in the prophet receiving a 15-year jail sentence. When the prophet took his appeal to the Supreme Court, she tracked the case, keeping it in the court of public opinion and using her coverage of the trial to negate the power differential between child and rapist. The sentence was upheld.

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Anti-corruption activists rally outside Zambia's national legislature in 2018.SALIM DAWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

If the exhortations of her mother sensitized Ms. Kumwenda to one societal ill, the work of her father highlighted another: endemic corruption. As an auditor employed by the government, he repeatedly unearthed evidence of government sleaze and financial irregularities, which he meticulously outlined in his reports. But there was seldom any accountability.

Ms. Kumwenda saw how devastated her father was by the government’s failure to act and address corruption. She has never forgotten his mounting frustration at his impotence in bringing about change. To her, journalism could be the vessel that provided the missing piece of accountability.

Corruption spawns numerous social and economic ills and blights local communities in Zambia. Two examples given by Ms. Kumwenda are the absence of clean water to drink and poor-quality education. To tackle this, she has set about exposing the misuse of public funds.

One high-profile case entailed whistle-blowers alerting Ms. Kumwenda to the fact that a large amount of money earmarked by the government for community projects had been misappropriated. She was given a trove of documents to prove the allegations; she set about verifying the evidence and was able to guarantee anonymity for the informers. Her report was instrumental in the arrests of a member of Parliament, Rodgers Mwewa, and his wife, Anne Mwitwa, a government official.

Ms. Kumwenda’s prominent public profile as a television reporter coupled with her advocacy for the less privileged in society has garnered her a wide viewership. She told me the story of a mother taking her desperately sick child from the hospital directly to the television studio and asking for help. The child required a surgical procedure that could not be undertaken in Zambia. A hospital in India had offered its services, but bureaucratic incompetence and callous indifference had for years combined to stall the mother’s passport application.

Now, her child was dying and she saw Mwape Kumwenda as her last hope. Moved by the woman’s plight, Ms. Kumwenda petitioned the Minister of Community Development. She lobbied for funding. The child got to India. A few years later, she received a surprise phone call from a grateful mother; her daughter, now restored to health, had just started school.

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Ms. Kumwenda says her reporting has made a difference, but sometimes the violence and injustice she has seen can take a psychological toll.Edith Sampa Chiliboy/The Globe and Mail

Giving a voice to the underdog can, on occasion, prove harrowing. Ms. Kumwenda was a lone voice reporting on a long-running land dispute that pitted the government against a local community deemed to be squatting on land earmarked for military officers. More than 2,000 people had lived there for 50 years – their ancestors were buried on the land. When soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters upset at their imminent eviction, Ms. Kumwenda suddenly found herself a first responder and witness to the aftermath of a shooting that left one man dead and another dying in front of her.

The violence did not end there. Doing a follow-up story the next day, she visited the funeral house where the leader of the opposition was also paying a visit. They were physically set upon there by a mob of government supporters. Mourners were beaten, a colleague had his camera stolen and Ms. Kumwenda had to lock herself and her cameraman in a room in the funeral house to escape the attack.

Undeterred, she still did not let up in her coverage of the dispute. The minister of defence at the time called her out, asking why she persisted in questioning the authorities. Her answer went to the heart of her journalism: accountability. Two innocent people had been killed, children had been left fatherless and an unemployed mother was suddenly widowed and left destitute, forced to give up two of her four young children to the care of others.

Ms. Kumwenda kept asking how such a situation had come to pass. Other journalists were cowed when it came to challenging the government and army. In the end, the government conceded, and a substantial portion of the land was returned to the community.

“To some extent, I feel that my persistent reporting helped shelter the local people,” she said.

The violence she witnessed, however, left her emotionally traumatized. Gory images of blood and brains spilling out onto the ground and the wailing of relatives and children at the scene of the killings stayed with her in the weeks that followed. Realizing she needed help and finding solace in religion, she turned to her pastor rather than a psychologist for therapy.

The language that Ms. Kumwenda uses to describe her reporting is informative when dissected within the framework of moral injury: “As the Fourth Estate, we have a duty to provide checks and balances to those in authority to do the right thing,” she said. “If we remain silent when faced by these issues, then social and economic injustices remain the order of the day. And then we too are guilty of not providing a proper service to the people. We owe it to them.”

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A Zambian flag sits on Ms. Kumwenda's desk at her office.Edith Sampa Chiliboy/The Globe and Mail

In this powerful declaration of intent, we can see that doing nothing in the face of morally egregious behavior is not an option, for an act of omission becomes tainted by guilt. When Ms. Kumwenda links guilt with inaction, she is giving voice to a key behaviour and a primary emotion associated with moral injury. But for her, this is only the first half of the equation. The part that comes next, the part that eluded her father, is the power to bring about change.

“Unless the evil of people is exposed, they will continue with it,” she went on. “But when they are exposed, they are shamed by their wrongdoing. And then there is room for change.”

In these ringing words, we are introduced to another key behaviour and emotion associated with moral injury. We have the act of committing something morally egregious, be it corruption or rape. And when this is exposed, shame follows in the wake. Shame is the impetus for change the antidote to inaction.

That the change is enforced and not necessarily accompanied by repentance on the part of the perpetrators does not dilute the outcome. More often than not, it is the “system” that is being prodded and shamed into providing justice for those who lack the clout to obtain it, such as the sexually abused schoolgirl left with gonorrhea and a baby to nurse, or the downtrodden community forced to drink filthy water.

When parsing what Ms. Kumwenda has to say to explain her motivation, I should note that she makes no direct mention of moral injury. Like many journalists, this is not a concept that she is familiar with. But her choice of words is telling, for it unconsciously reflects the key principles that define the condition.

What is equally telling in this context are the principles to which she adheres in her reporting. She sees her journalism as “centred on the truth.” She was at pains in explaining to me that she is careful not to pass judgment in her stories. Rather, she lets the facts alone convey the message. That they can prove so damning speaks to the power of unadorned truth. She is proud that précis of her reports are used as evidence by law-enforcement officials.

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A newspaper vendor in Lusaka sells his wares after national elections last year.MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

Zambia ranks 109 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Journalists are not murdered, doxxed or routinely incarcerated, but the country’s lowly position on the list is indicative of the challenges they face operating freely. The problem, according to Ms. Kumwenda, is often one of conflict of interests. Most media organizations are partly owned by businesspeople who have connections to ministers or financial dealings with the party in power. They are fearful of losing their broadcasting license and revenue if they unfavourably report on the government. As a result, they self-censor.

In 2019, after spending 13 years at Muvi-TV, Ms. Kumwenda left when the owner went into politics. She was worried the station would not be seen as credible. Her move to Prime TV ended two years later, when the government revoked their licence, complaining that the station’s reports were too opinionated. The licence was only returned after a change in government. So to maintain complete independence, she and a colleague started their own company, Crown TV.

“I make sure the company’s paperwork and taxes are pristine,” she said, citing the case of a private newspaper that was silenced by bogus tax claims. She is constantly wary of government intimidation, noting that her industry is regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, whose board is appointed by the government and answers to them. Independence in this case is therefore a misnomer, and while legislation has been drafted to address this issue, she mentioned ruefully that politicians control this process, too.

All of which brings us back to where we started. Fifteen years into her career as a journalist, Ms. Kumwenda is again planning on pursuing her first career choice, law. Her motivation is not disillusionment with journalism – just the opposite. She wants to be in a position in which she can provide her own legal counsel to her fledgling television company. The spectre of conflict of interests looms once more, but this time pertaining to lawyers who may have undisclosed political links or government-dependent business interests that could bias their opinions.

Driven by a fierce moral courage to pursue her advocacy work, she sees a natural synergy between journalism and the law. But first, both have to escape the officious tentacles of those in power.

Moral Courage: About the series

Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.

Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission and the personal consequences their work entails.

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For Iranian journalist Mohammad Mosaed, exile was a last resort, but silence is not an option

Under threat of arrest, Belarusian journalist Larysa Shchyrakova aims to expose an authoritarian regime

From murders to migrants, photojournalists Victoria Razo and Felix Marquez bear witness to Mexico’s injustices

Shooting War: Inside the Globe and Mail documentary

Santiago Lyon is an Associated Press photojournalist featured in the new Globe documentary Shooting War. He spoke with The Decibel about the costs, physical and mental, of covering conflicts around the world. Subscribe for more episodes.

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