Muvi Television, Zambia
In Zambia, those who have suffered grave accounts of injustice — including government-sanctioned murders of loved ones, illegal land seizures and other forms of disenfranchisement — are smart to contact journalist Mwape Kumwenda.
Once Kumwenda gets involved in an investigation, she won’t stop until the guilty parties are held accountable for their actions. It’s not an easy task in a nation where government entities routinely censor news content and harass independent journalists and news outlets. But she takes her responsibility to disseminate accurate, balanced information far too seriously to let any acts of intimidation silence her reporting.
“What inspired me is the public confidence I have gained over the years — the trust I have built with the people,” she says. “ I always believed that with or without the needed press freedom laws… corruption can still be exposed and brought to and end.”
Commemorating her influential work, along with her unwavering level of ambition, the IWMF has selected Kumwenda as a 2015 Courage in Journalism Awardee.
“The Courage award means a lot to me. It means that my work is not just in vein. It is not only seen by Zambians but by the world as well,” she says. “It means that I must continue working harder, unearthing the injustices and corruption [stilting] our development as a nation.”
Initially, Kumwenda figured she’d become a lawyer. But she decided to fast track her dream of changing lives by getting a degree in journalism.
“I believed that through journalism I would still live up to my aspirations of helping those in need,” she says, noting she recognized the ability of quality news to empower people to take action.
Today, she reports primarily on community news and political affairs for Muvi Television, a locally based independents news station. While she says she’s well supported by her colleagues and editors, the past two years have been marked by an onslaught of serious threats of physical harm and criminal prosecution.
For instance, in February 2013, Kumwenda was threatened with criminal prosecution for her under cover reporting that exposed the government-sanctioned killings of more than 20 inmates at the Mukobeko Maximum Security Prison.
“I was being called by ministers threatening that I would be arrested for treason. Some ministers even went public, issuing statements on other media that they would have me arrested if I continued reporting about the killing,” she says. “ Even though I had to think about my two children, I wanted to make it known to the nation that more than 20 inmates at the prison were killed when tear gas canisters were fired in their cells, where they died of suffocation.”
She also refused to back down when government officials threatened to sue her for defamation of character while she dug around for proof that they were misusing public funds in December 2013. Her efforts paid off, though, as the two men were fired upon official investigation.
Pursuing another lead on illegal land grabs outside of the capital, in late 2013, she perhaps found herself in the most dangerous situation she’s faced thus far.
“I went to an area feared by police officers to expose illegal land sales by political party cadres from the ruling party,” she says. “It was a dangerous move I made, as the group involved in the act did not want to be exposed, so they never allowed anyone to visit the area with a phone. I had to pretend to be a buyer…to access the area and witness their business. These people were armed with machetes and very sharp knives, so going there was a matter of life and death.”
Over the years, Kumwenda’s first instinct when getting wind of a murder is to go to the site, rather than flee. That was also the case in June 2013, when she reported on the killing of two men who had been squatting on a piece of government-owned land. Until the suspects are prosecuted, she says she’ll continue to keep the story in the media spotlight.
“In all these encounters, I told myself the story had to be told,” she says.
While she find satisfaction in prompting officials to take responsibility for their actions, she recognizes a continued need for greater press freedom in Zambia — where female journalists have managed to find equal footing with their male counterparts.
In the meantime, she’s happy to have connected with yet another source of support.
“With this award, I can stand proud and report on corruption freely, knowing that my work is supported by organizations such as the IWMF. This award tells me that the sky is not a limit. I can excel regardless of the unfavorable media environment in my country, “ she says. “With this award, I will rise above the unavailability of press freedom and access to information laws.”
by Erin Luhmann Hinrichs
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 2015