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Friday, 28 September 2007

RIGHT TO KNOW DAY

Today (28 September 2007) is International Right to Know Day and this will be marked by a march and speeches in a hotel in Manzini. The event will be jointly organized by the Media Institute for Southern Africa – Swaziland Chapter (MISA) and the Southern African Journalists Association (SAJA).

This year marks the 5th International Right to Know Day, a day which was established to mark the founding on 28 September 2002 of the global Freedom of Information Advocates Network. This is the second year that International Right to Know Day has been marked in Swaziland.

The aim of International Right to Know Day is to raise awareness of every individual's right of access to government-held information: the right to know how elected officials are exercising power and how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Freedom of information advocates have used the day to share ideas, strategies and success stories about the development of freedom of information laws and the goals of open government.

Reading the above aim of the International Right to Know Day makes sad reading for us in Swaziland because it reminds us of how far we have to go before we can meet the International Right to Know Day standards.

To begin with, of course, we are not a democracy and as subjects of King Mswati III we have no rights to information. The Swazi Constitution that came into force in 2006 allows for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, but in practice we have none of these things. The media in Swaziland is mostly controlled by the government and the king, through the government, can decide what is broadcast on air and what is not.

Freedom of assembly doesn’t exist. Political parties are banned and it is difficult to form meaningful trade unions. Elections will take place next year, but if they are anything like the last elections that took place in 2003 they will be bogus. Last time around the international community didn’t even bother to send election observers to Swaziland as monitors to ensure the elections were free and fair: nobody outside Swaziland expected them to be so there was no point.

At first glance there is a glimmer of hope on the freedom of information front here in Swaziland. Earlier this year a draft Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill was published. This was one of a raft of bills concerning media that was published at the same time.

A Commonwealth consultant and Swazi ‘stakeholders’ met to discuss the finer details of the bill earlier this year.

The bill says its first objective is to ‘encourage a culture of openness, transparency and accountability in public bodies by providing for access to information held by these bodies in order to enable every citizen to fully exercise and protect their constitutional right of freedom of expression.’

As I said above this seems a positive move ‘at first glance’ but if you look more closely you can see how bogus the operation is. To begin with the bill was not created within Swaziland and pays no attention to the dual legal system of formal and traditional laws we have here. In fact, the consultant seems to have taken a look at some bills that already exist in South Africa and copied parts of them out into this new Swazi bill.

Calling Swaziland a ‘republic’ (as in ‘Republic of South Africa’) as the consultant does at one point in the bill (when as we know Swaziland is an autocratic monarchy) rather gave the game away.

The stakeholders’ meetings that were scheduled to discuss the bill were not successful. At one three-day meeting in March 2007, so few interested parties turned up they spent some time discussing whether to abandon the meeting altogether.

Most conspicuous by their absence at the meeting were the traditionalists. One stakeholder even went so far as to say without the traditionalists present the whole meeting was ‘useless’.

In Swaziland nothing will change without the approval of the traditionalists and if you want proof of this just look at the way the implementation of the 2006 constitution has been stalled by them.

So, Swaziland has a long way to go. If you want to learn more about freedom of information, here are 10 principles as set out by the Open Society Justice Initiative.


1. Access to information is a right of everyone. Anyone may request information, regardless of nationality or profession. There should be no citizenship requirements and no need to justify why the information is being sought.

2. Access is the rule – secrecy is the exception! All information held by government bodies is public in principle. Information can be withheld only for a narrow set of legitimate reasons set forth in international law and also codified in national law.

3. The right applies to all public bodies. The public has a right to receive information in the possession of any institution funded by the public and private bodies performing public functions, such as water and electricity providers.

4. Making requests should be simple, speedy, and free.Making a request should be simple. The only requirements should be to supply a name, address and description of the information sought. Requestors should be able to file requests in writing or orally. Information should be provided immediately or within a short timeframe. The cost should not be greater than the reproduction of documents.

5. Officials have a duty to assist requestorsPublic officials should assist requestors in making their requests. If a request is submitted to the wrong public body, officials should transfer the request to the appropriate body.

6. Refusals must be justified. Governments may only withhold information from public access if disclosure would cause demonstrable harm to legitimate interests, such as national security or privacy. These exceptions must be clearly and specifically defined by law. Any refusal must clearly state the reasons for withholding the information.

7. The public interest takes precedence over secrecy. Information must be released when the public interest outweighs any harm in releasing it. There is a strong presumption that information about threats to the environment, health, or human rights, and information revealing corruption, should be released, given the high public interest in such information.

8. Everyone has the right to appeal an adverse decision. All requestors have the right to a prompt and effective judicial review of a public body’s refusal or failure to disclose information.

9. Public bodies should proactively publish core information. Every public body should make readily available information about its functions and responsibilities, without need for a request. This information should be current, clear, and in plain language.

10. The right should be guaranteed by an independent body. An independent agency, such as an ombudsperson or commissioner, should be established to review refusals, promote awareness, and advance the right to access information.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

‘TIMES’ PEDDLES IGNORANCE ON RAPE

The crime of rape seems to be prevalent in Swaziland. Hardly a week goes by without some report of women and children violated by men. Pastors rape women in their congregation; teachers rape their pupils and gangs of men rape women as punishment for perceived wrongdoing. Not long ago two tourists from Belgium had their car hijacked before they were raped.

All these people were victims of a terrible crime, but if you believe an article in the Times of Swaziland they bought the rape upon themselves. You see, women who get raped are asking for it.

The column Let’s Talk About Sex (21 September 2007) interviewed men about why women get raped and reported that ‘the way women dress is entirely leading. Women bring it upon themselves. If they dress up in mini-skirts and body hugging pants, what are men supposed to do?’

The report added that rapists were not necessarily beasts as society had labelled them. ‘Most of them were men who had tried to ignore their desires which were fuelled by “half naked women” until such time that it became too much to bear and they raped someone.’

I have written before about Let’s Talk About Sex. It is possibly the most ignorant column in Swazi journalism. Previously it told us that women who carry condoms are thought of as ‘whores’ and that homosexuals are child molesters. The column peddles a confused morality and hates women.

Even the Times had it doubts about the rape column. It put a disclaimer at the end of the article that the views are ‘not shared by this newspaper.’

But why did it publish it at all? The article wasn’t a discussion about a topic for which there are many different views and each view is as valid as any other. This article told its readers that it is all right to rape women and men shouldn’t be blamed for rape because women tempt them into wanting sex.

Let’s get one thing straight. Rape has nothing to do with ‘sexual desire’; it is about men having power over women. Blaming women is just an excuse to justify female oppression through the control of women’s behaviour. The people who say that women bring rape on themselves by wearing short skirts tend to be the same people who want to restrict the role of women in Swaziland society to that of servants to men. That’s why in Swazi customary law women have no legal rights separate from men (usually husbands or fathers).

There is absolutely no independent evidence anywhere in the world that supports the ‘short skirts’ explanation for rape, yet the Times has allowed this lie to be repeated in its pages.

Media commentator Angela Black writes that to target a woman as the guilty party in her own rape has dangerous consequences, because as long as the reason is accepted by society as being female seduction, then victims will be reluctant to come forward.

She says that women will fear that instead of attaining legal and social justice, they will instead become the object of social condemnation, and accusations that they had somehow invited the rape.

The knock on effect can only lead to a greater sense of impunity for sex offenders, and instead of preventing rape, may well encourage it.

The Times has made a serious mistake in allowing Let’s Talk About Sex to publish this dangerous nonsense about rape. This isn’t the first time the column has peddled ignorance and hatred. The column is a disgrace to journalism and if the Times had any self-respect it would recognise the error it has made in publishing Let’s Talk About Sex and discontinue the column.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

AFRICA'S VIEW OF SWAZILAND

African news media largely ignore what is going in Swaziland. And when news is reported it is mainly about poverty, HIV/AIDS and development issues. South African news media are more interested in Swaziland than any other country on the African continent.

These are some of the findings of a survey I undertook into how the world’s media view Swaziland.

I wrote earlier this month about what news media outside of Africa reported on Swaziland and said it seemed that anyone hardly anyone outside of Swaziland is interested in the kingdom.

The news from within Africa is a little better.

To recap, I set up a small research project to systematically monitor the world’s news media to find out how Swaziland was reported abroad. To do this it would be impractical to read every newspaper, listen to all radio stations and watch all television stations in the world. Instead, I used Google News as the source material. Google News is a computer-generated news site that collects together headlines from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide.

I have been downloading items on Swaziland from Google News every day since February 2005. I do this by requesting from the computer site all items that contain the word ‘Swaziland’ in them. To make the number of downloads manageable Google News only sends you one copy of an item even if it appears in more than one publication. That means, for example, if a news agency such as the Associated Press sends out a story and it is used by a dozen newspapers in the United States only one version will be picked up and sent out to you by Google News.

For this research I took the period for one year starting March 2005 and counted the items for every other month (March, May, July and so on).

In that time there were 165 items counted. The first thing to notice about this is how few there were. The 165 items averaged just over one a day and many of the items were small reports of less than 100 words. It would seem that there is not much interest in the rest of the world about what is going on in Swaziland.

The table below shows which organizations within Africa are reporting on Swaziland. The total number of items counted was 125 (compared to only 40 for outside Africa). This suggests that Swaziland is more ‘newsworthy’ within Africa.

A total of 34 items come from South African newspapers, broadcasting stations or the South Africa Press Association. This is perhaps unsurprising since South Africa borders Swaziland and there is a constant movement of people between the two countries. It is also widely stated that there are more Swazi people living in South Africa than live in Swaziland itself so the ethnic connection between the two countries is clear.

Nearly one in four items comes from the United Nations supported Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a news and information agency that reports mostly on development issues. Here are some examples of items sent out by IRIN during the year.

- Swaziland is to standardise primary school fees as a first step toward meeting UNESCO’s goal of education for all by 2015.
- Women challenging their traditional status as minors.
- Finance minister announces the Government Budget for the year.
- Government embarks on anti corruption drive.
- Aids and poverty in the Hhohho region.
Among the organisations that only had one entry in the count were ReliefWeb, Biz Community, The Nation newspaper, Kenya, and the Writers in Prison Committee.

Swazi journalists often complain that the kingdom and in particular King Mswati III get negative coverage in the foreign press. This view isn’t supported by the evidence. The ‘development’ reports on HIV/AIDS, education, gender and so on are mostly neutral in tone and content. They give facts and a wide range of opinion.

Those who detect bias and negative reporting in the foreign press need to allow that Swaziland is a kingdom that has very serious problems that need to be addressed. To take some examples: Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world; it is generally recognised within the kingdom itself that corruption is rife; and poverty is endemic. Just because the foreign media reports on these issues it does not mean that the reporting is negative. People need to be told what is going on.

King Mswati III is largely ignored in the foreign press within Africa, except in South Africa. There were a number of reports critical of the king, but not all of the reports were. On a positive note, News 24 radio reported that the king sold his own livestock to pay for two luxury German cars and he did not use state money.

More negatively, the Sunday Times, Johannesburg, commented that the king’s penchant for expensive luxury cars and private jets ‘is an insult to the many ordinary Swazis who have to face the daily grind brought about by living in poverty.’

But to balance this view the same newspaper later published a comment from a Swazi who said that ordinary people in Swaziland did not begrudge their king his luxuries.

(In August 2007, Forbes.com estimated that King Mswati III had a net worth of 200 million US dollars, or one billion, four hundred million emalangeni).

The king as head of state was criticised in the Mail and Guardian as church groups in Swaziland protested against the draft constitution, which they said gave the monarch too much power. Later in the year South Africa Broadcasting Corporation reported that the king signed into law the new constitution which ‘cements his power as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch and upholds a ban on opposition political parties’.

When I wrote about news coverage of Swaziland outside of Africa I concluded that Swaziland has no significance on the international stage because it is not strategically placed (there are no ports on world trade routes, for instance). Nor does Swaziland have much economic importance, such as a wealth of raw materials that are important in world manufacturing.

This lack of interest also exists within Africa. International news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press do not have offices in the kingdom and when there is a potentially interesting story, such as the annual Reed Dance, foreign journalists travel into Swaziland for a day or so and then move on to their next job.

A single Swazi-based freelance journalist writes a large number of the news reports coming out of Swaziland. Many of his reports are carried by the IRIN agency. What he demonstrates is that if news and feature material is supplied to international agencies there is a real possibility that it will be published.

If Swazi journalists want the world to know more about Swaziland they should take a leaf out of his book by writing their own news reports and articles and supplying them to foreign media.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

NEW TECHNOLOGY BRINGS FREEDOM

I was at the Highways Africa conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, earlier this month when I got chatting to a group of media freedom advocates.

Once we’d finished exchanging pleasantries, we got down to some serious talking: about the lack of media freedom in Swaziland.

It doesn’t matter how diplomatic you try to be with your language, the fact remains that Swaziland is not a democracy and the king, through the powers of the government, has an iron grip on the media in the kingdom. This is most obviously so with radio and television.

The government could close down the radio and television stations at a moment’s notice if it chose to, or it could dictate what programmes to broadcast, or it could ban anyone it doesn’t like from the airwaves. The government is unlikely to give up this control any time soon.

What is the chance of setting up community radio stations in Swaziland? a colleague from Europe asked. The answer is ‘not much’. The more stations there are in Swaziland, the more difficult it will be for the government to control. So, I told my colleague, it is just not going to happen.

‘I know,’ he said, ‘What about setting up a radio station just outside Swaziland’s borders and beaming programmes into Swaziland.’ We all had a good laugh at this and went to dinner and forgot about it.

I was reminded of this conversation this week when I saw the text of a presentation that Gerry Jackson, the founder and station manager, of SW Radio Africa, gave to a UNESCO conference earlier this year.

SW Radio Africa broadcasts on shortwave into Zimbabwe, a country with one of the most oppressive media environments in the world.

In 2000, Jackson challenged the government’s broadcasting monopoly in the Supreme Court and won the right to open the first independent radio station In Zimbabwe.

Jackson told the conference, ‘It was shut down at gunpoint after just six days. So this was clearly not the way to go.

‘We had to move offshore. So, we started off five years ago broadcasting on short wave into Zimbabwe. Sadly, the regional countries were not amenable to hosting us in the neighbourhood, so we had to set up in the United Kingdom. That was a little reminder that repressive governments continue to exist because they often have external support.’

He went on, ‘In 2005, we had our first problem with our short wave broadcasts, courtesy of Mugabe’s friends the Chinese. They supplied him with rather expensive jamming equipment and we believe personnel were sent to China for training. It effectively blew us completely out of the water. But the jamming is focused on the main cities. We are still clearly heard in many rural areas.’

Jackson said, ‘At first, the jammers took their week ends off, which was very useful for us. Unfortunately, just recently, they had a lesson in improving their work ethic or just hired more badly paid personnel – and now the jamming continues throughout the week ends. Last year, the jamming equipment was also upgraded and now targets us and Voice of America, which broadcast a daily Zimbabwe focused program on medium wave and three short wave frequencies.

‘We could circumvent this jamming by broadcasting on multiple frequencies – but that would require a serious amount of money that we can’t get our hands on.’

With the radio jammed, Jackson and his fellow freedom advocates got round the problem by providing a service by sending news headlines into Zimbabwe, via SMS.

Jackson said, ‘Zimbabweans truly love their mobile phones. Even in poor rural areas there are many people with mobiles.’

He added, ‘It’s an incredibly popular service, and as Zimbabwe goes into complete meltdown, it couldn’t be more important.’ But it means they have to learn how to write a news story in fewer than 160 characters, including spaces.

So people using a bit of imagination and new technologies are getting free, independent, news of sorts into Zimbabwe.

Maybe my colleague from Europe is on to something . . .

Monday, 24 September 2007

SWAZI JOURNALISTS CAN’T ADD UP

A row over the murder rate in Swaziland has exposed shortcomings in Swazi journalism – and also in the Swazi Government.

S’gayoyo Magongo, the Minister of Public Service and Information, publicly attacked overseas’ journalists at a press conference on Thursday about the number of murders that are committed in Swaziland.

The internationally respected Economist group of magazines had published statistics in its publication Pocket World in Figures that said Swaziland had the second highest number of murders in the whole world.

The Economist report was picked up by the Times Sunday and this is what brought it to the Minister’s attention. The Economist had reported that there were 13.6 murders per 100,000 head of population in Swaziland.

On Friday (21 September 2007) both the Swazi Observer and the Times of Swaziland reported S’gayoyo ‘slamming’ and ‘rubbishing’ the report. S’gayoyo said that the Economist got it wrong.

S’gayoyo scoffed at a press conference that this would mean that something like 155,856 Swazis would have been murdered in a year, an incredible figure considering that there are only 1.1 million people living in the whole of Swaziland.

The figures would be alarming indeed, if that is what the Economist said. In fact the Economist said there were 13.6 murders per 100,000 people in Swaziland. When you extend that ratio to the whole 1.1 million Swaziland population the total number of murders comes to about 150 a year. This figure is roughly the same number of murders that have been reported by the Royal Swazi Police in its annual reports, demonstrating that the Economist got it about right.

The Times Sunday got the figures wrong. And so did S’gayoyo. He told the press conference that ‘the Government’ had checked the original source of the information (so we must assume that ‘the Government’ – whoever that is – made the same mistake as the Times Sunday journalist).

What they both did was to read 13.6 per 100,000 as 13.6 per cent of 100,000. This enabled them to arrive at the figure of 155,856. The mistake should be obvious. Trying to calculate the murder rate in the whole 1.1 million population as 13.6 per cent of 100,000 simply makes no sense.

So the minister made a basic statistical error. But how come both the Times and the Observer didn’t point out the mistake to him, but instead printed it?

There are two parts to the answer, I think. The first is that S’gayoyo is a minister and journalists in Swaziland don’t, as a habit, correct ministers (even when, as in this case, he was so clearly wrong). The second part to the answer is that the Times and Observer journalists themselves probably didn’t understand the statistic either. You only need to read the business pages of both the daily newspapers to see reports written in such a way that it is clear that the journalists don’t understand figures.

S’gayoyo’s error is embarrassing for him, because he told the press conference that ‘the Government’ had checked the original report on the Internet, so the misinterpretation of the Economist report must be seen as his own responsibility.

He then used the Economist ‘error’ as an excuse to attack the international media for misreporting Swaziland.

The Times reported S’gayoyo saying, ‘On behalf of the Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland, the Ministry of Public Services and Information wishes to caution about the ramifications of one-sided, biased and non-factual journalistic practices.'

He went on, ‘Inaccurate, one-sided, negative reports give an unattractive perception of the country and may fan away foreign direct investment and tourism.’

The original mistake was obvious to people outside of Swazi journalism and Swazi government and it was quickly spotted and yesterday (23 September 2007) the Times Sunday fell over itself to correct the mistake.

So to recap: the Times Sunday journalists, the Minister of Public Service and Information and ‘the Government’ all failed their stats exam. And as for the reporting of the Economist’s role in all this, it wasn’t the international journalists who were ‘inaccurate’ and ‘one-sided’ and ‘non-factual’. It was the Times Sunday and Minister S’gayoyo himself.

So, one small lack of understanding of a statistic has exposed failings in Swazi journalism, the Swazi ‘Government’ and the Minister of Public Service and Information. Not bad for one morning’s work.

Friday, 21 September 2007

JOURNALISM FELLOWSHIPS ON OFFER

International Journalists’ Program (IJP) offers fellowships for up to six young journalists from Southern African states to work in a German newsroom and produce stories for media in their home countries. Deadline: January 31.

Eligibility is open to working journalists age 25 to 35 from Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Fellows receive EU€3,000 (about E28,000) to cover travel, lodging and living expenses. Fellows should have a strong command of English; knowledge of German is helpful but not required. Fellows must submit references to their desired media organizations, for which they will work several weeks before embarking on individual research projects.

For more information, contact Marco Vollmar at vollmar@ijp.org or visit the website here

Sourced from International Journalists’ Network

Thursday, 20 September 2007

READING BIG BROTHER

Big Brother Africa 2 (BBA2), the television ‘reality’ show that put 12 young people in a house together and asked the viewers to vote which of them should be thrown out, is getting a lot of coverage in newspapers across Africa. That’s understandable, because a great deal of money has been spent putting the show together and if the publicists can get enough people hooked on it there’s a lot of money to be made for the sponsors.

A good deal of the coverage is in countries that have a representative in the house. Only 12 people were chosen and each of them is from a different country. Only countries with people who have money to attract advertisers were allowed to take part.

Swazis were not invited to audition for a place in the house because not enough people in the kingdom subscribe to DSTV, the satellite television company that is broadcasting BBA2. It seems that Swazis are just too poor.

That hasn’t stopped the Swazi newspapers from running articles about BBA2. I don’t quite see why the newspapers bother since hardly anyone in Swaziland is watching the programme.

Of Swaziland’s two daily newspapers, the Swazi Observer has been publishing most articles detailing what’s going on in the BBA2 house and I can see the irony of a newspaper with hardly any readers writing about a television programme with hardly any viewers

Although the Observer has been publishing BBA2 articles for some time now, its daily rival the Times of Swaziland is catching up.

But the problem is both newspapers are too lazy to write their own articles, even though yesterday both of them devoted a page to the latest ‘news’ from the BBA2 household.

What at first look like columns written by a journalist are actually just a bunch of words copied from the Big Brother Internet site.

I say a ‘bunch of words’ because the inept ‘journalist’ who put the page together for the Observer on Monday (17 September 2007) clearly didn’t even bother to read them. Or maybe, he or she did read them but was a bit too slow to understand what the words actually meant. For in Monday’s article the ‘journalist’ left in lines that are clearly ‘hot links’ for people who are reading the stuff on their computers to click onto and leave their own messages.

When you see the words ‘Make your prediction in the forum’ in print on the page of the Observer, it just makes no sense at all. When you see the same words on the Internet you know to click on them and be taken to a page where you write your own comments about the show.

This is just another example of how difficult it is to trust Swazi journalism. What looks like a piece of independent journalism turns out to be copied from a commercial website.

Yesterday, the game was up. Anyone who bought both the Observer and the Times would see that their BBA2 articles were exactly the same. Word for word.

Both articles were about the non-story that there would be no evictions from the house this week. But (and how exciting is this?) the housemates don’t know.

It’s all public relations nonsense of course to try to drum up some drama about the BBA2 show, when none really exists.

I’d rather the newspapers gave us some real journalism about BBA2.

Here’s something they could find out for us. How many Swazis have been sending SMS text messages to the show (at E3.50 a time) and how much profit has the cell phone company MTS made as a result of this?

And what chance does a caller from Swaziland really have in deciding which housemate gets evicted?

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

NAKED HYPOCRISY AT THE 'TIMES'

Was the Reed Dance really a porn show? This was the question posed by the Times of Swaziland yesterday (18 September 2007) as it commented on the latest round of the annual Reed Dance.

Thousands of young ‘maidens’ had taken part at the weekend in the Shiselweni dance, which is a follow up to the main Reed Dance that took place earlier this month, but, according to a Times comment piece, young women were ‘forced to strip naked while men watch gleefully pretending to be judges of a beauty contest if not playing pimps over the girls they have been entrusted to protect’.

Boy Scouts also walked in and out of the girls’ domain while the girls got dressed, the comment piece said.

All this prompted the Times to pose its ‘porn’ question.

In breathless tones the comment piece invited us to turn to pages 13 – 18 for highlights of how the girls were subjected to ‘humiliating’ experiences. So I did.

On page 13 there was this headline, INSIDE How men help themselves to naked girls…

I turned inside but couldn't find the story. On page 14 I did find the headline, Do something about the perverts! This was an eyewitness ‘I was there’ account of being one of the girls at the dance. The writer Shamiso Dlamini told how she had to bath with other ‘girls’, while men watched on.

It was, for her, an unpleasant experience, but she said the other girls in the group didn’t seem to mind. After she had finished, a man made a crude remark at her, which upset her.

Later, she reported that a lot of men seemed to be hanging around the girls and some Boy Scouts went into a room when girls were dressing.

This was, for Dlamini, a deeply unpleasant experience. We should respect her feelings on the matter, but her story didn’t deserve the headline ‘perverts’. Neither did the facts in her story justify the description of being ‘forced to strip naked while men watch gleefully pretending to be judges of a beauty contest if not playing pimps over the girls’.

I’m still looking for the report on How men help themselves to naked girls…

The truth is that the Times was leading us all on. It was doing exactly the kind of thing it said it was against. It was sexually exploiting the girls. It was also exploiting its readers. The headline How men help themselves to naked girls… could have come straight out of a porn magazine and it was meant to titillate male readers. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine what kind of story and pictures might have gone alongside such a headline.

The Times went on to further expose its own hypocrisy by publishing on the front page a photograph of women in various stages of undress (including a couple who appear to be totally naked) at a river washing. In case we didn’t get the point, the Times published the same picture, only bigger, on page 14.

But there was more to come. A Times’ reporter went to a group of girls and demanded of them, ‘Are You A Virgin?’ The reporter wrote, ‘The moment I asked the question the girls’ eyes popped out.’ By the end of the day the reporter had asked 51 girls.

If the editor of the Times thought that the men watching the girls washing were ‘perverts’, what does he call his own reporter? He gave a whole page of the Times to the responses his reporter got to the virginity question, so what does that make him?

So was the Reed Dance a porn show? Not really, but the Times reporting certainly was.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

WATCHING BIG BROTHER

On Sunday I saw some people having a meal (scrambled eggs, I think) and then one man poured himself a glass of water and drank it. Later, someone else took a broom and swept the floor of the kitchen while some others sat in the garden.

No, this wasn’t a typical Sunday at the Rooney homestead; this was a day in the life of Big Brother Africa 2 (BBA2).

BBA2 is the new ‘reality television’ show broadcast by satellite company, DSTV.

For those of you who have real lives of your own and haven’t been paying attention, BBA2 put 12 ‘housemates’ together in a house, locked them away from the world, and has had cameras following them for 24 hours a day.

Sunday was day 42 of their exploits. The series is scheduled to run for a total of 98 days.

From time to time, viewers are asked to nominate one of the housemates for eviction from the house. This goes on until viewers have voted everybody except one person off and that person is then declared the winner. The winner gets to go away with 100,000 US dollars (700,000 Swazi emalengeni).

This is only the second time that Big Brother Africa has been broadcast, but the programme format is not new. It started in the Netherlands in the1990s and local versions of the programme have been broadcast around the world since. It is now one of the most successful programme formats in the history of television.

Back in the 1990s, the programme makers made all kinds of claims for Big Brother. They said it was a social experiment to see how people would react to living so closely to one another without a break and for such a long period. Sociologists and psychologists rushed to praise the programme for its intellectual insights.

Nobody seriously says that kind of thing now. It didn’t take too long before the truth came out. The reality of this ‘reality television’ programme was money. That’s why it’s taken so long for Big Brother to get as far as Africa: there’s not much money to be made on this continent.

Here’s how it works. The BBA2 programme makers wanted 12 contestants from across Africa. Instead of auditioning people across the continent and taking the best people they could find they decided to look only in Africa’s richer nations. They didn’t bother to come to Swaziland.

BBA2 found its 12 contestants – with no more than one person from any single country so they could spread the interest in the programme around the continent. Countries represented include South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Botswana.

BBA2 is targeted at a very particular audience of young people. To be attractive to sponsors and advertisers the audience need to be in well paying jobs and have money to spend on the goods and services advertisers want to sell.

Advertisers who use television have trouble reaching younger adults, so BBA2 was aimed specifically at these kinds of people. BBA2 wants the audience to relate to the participants so they chose men and women to take part who come from a very narrow social demographic.

The 12 housemates range in ages from 21 to 30-years old, but most of them are aged 23 to 28. They don’t have run of the mill jobs in the real world. Two describe themselves as ‘authors’, one is a model and actress, another is a fashion designer and yet another is a ‘radio personality’. This range of occupations is hardly typical of the average African.

The cell phone company MTN sponsors the programme and must be rubbing its hands all the way to the bank because the other way they make money is by getting the television audience to send SMS text messages.

If you want to vote to evict a housemate you send an SMS message. If you SMS from Swaziland it’ll cost you 50 US cents (about E3.50). The other moneymaking scheme is to get viewers to SMS messages that get published on screen. Again, an SMS from Swaziland will cost you 50 US cents.

To get the messages flowing and to incite interest, BBA2 has manufactured conflict within the house. By clicking OK on screen you are taking to a ‘news’ centre where you can catch up on what’s been going on in the house for the past 40-odd days. Here you learn that the housemates have fallen out with each other and there are now two opposing camps who are fighting with one another.

Also, a couple (one male and one female) are said to be getting a bit hot and have been kissing and nuzzling one another.

On the afternoon I watched, these two pieces of ‘news’ excited most of the text messages. There was a constant stream of messages (at E3.50 a time) and as far as I noticed none of them were repeated.

So the companies behind BBA2 are making a lot of money out of this programme, but as viewers what are we getting? On Sunday, I switched off after an hour or so and went to read a book. When I switched back on an hour or so later, there was a man and a woman in the kitchen boiling a pan of water. Maybe it was time for tea.

When I lived in Papua New Guinea I watched a TV programme called Haus and Home where they showed viewers how to decorate a wall in your house by painting it. We then spent some time watching the paint dry.

Why did I suddenly remember that? ….

Monday, 17 September 2007

QUOTING CORRECTLY

What do these two quotes have in common?

‘Right now it can affect me, but that is indirect. It will never directly affect me because I do not want it that way. I will never have HIV in my body because I chose so.’


‘I know that HIV can affect me indirectly, but I will never have HIV in my body.’




They were said by the same person at the same time in the same place. But the two journalists who covered the story produced different versions of what was said for their newspapers. The first was published in the Weekend Observer (15 September 2007) and the second in the Times of Swaziland (13 September 2007).

The event was a public speech on HIV/AIDS given by the Swaziland Deputy Minister of Regional Development and Youth Affairs, Hlobsile Ndlovu at the annual Peace Corps youth conference on 12 September 2007.

So how was it that the two different versions came to be published? The answer, of course, is that someone got it wrong. I don’t know, because I wasn’t there, but maybe one reporter got it right and the other one didn’t. Or maybe they both got it wrong.

The issue of how to quote quotes correctly isn’t a new one. And it certainly isn’t one that is confined to Swaziland newspapers.

Seasoned journalists who are otherwise honest and trustworthy alter quotes all the time. They shouldn’t do it but they do. If you went to a newsroom and asked reporters why they do it, I suspect they would tell you something like this: they don’t want to make the people they are reporting on look silly because they speak in badly constructed sentences with poor grammar. Reporters might also say that sometimes they write what the interviewee meant to say rather than what they actually did say, thereby tidying up a slip of the tongue.

Bob Steele, of the US-based media watchdog organisation Poynter, has written about his own experiences of being quoted by journalists.

‘On occasion, I see a quote attributed to me that I’m pretty darned sure doesn’t match what I said. ’Sometimes my quote has proper grammar when I know I butchered the verb tense in the interview. The reporter cleaned me up.

‘Sometimes there’s a word in my quote that I wouldn’t use because I don’t even know its meaning. The reporter either wasn’t listening well or took bad notes. ’Sometimes my “quote” is a composite of several things I said at different times in the interview. The words may be accurate but the reporter is playing loose with the context, perhaps the writer’s way of tidying up my thoughts to tighten up the story.

'I’m in the camp that believes, “Quotes should accurately and authentically reflect the words used in an interview. If we start changing words inside quote marks, then we raise questions about all other quotes. We will increase the distrust factor about the veracity of our journalism.”’

The Washington Post, in the United States, which is probably one of the most respected newspapers in the world, has a very simple rule when it comes to quotes. Deborah Howell, the newspapers ombudsman (the person who deals with readers’ complaints) says, the Washington Post's policy couldn't be clearer: ‘When we put a source's words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form.’

I have written before about the need for newspapers to be accurate in their reporting and this need should extend to the accurate use of quotes.

Getting things right is important because readers must feel that they can trust their newspapers (or other news media) and the main way they do this by having confidence that the reports and articles in the newspapers are accurate.

If you look at the number of errors that generally appear in newspapers in Swaziland it is not unreasonable to suspect that the real reason why quotes are incorrectly reported is that reporters are not very good at taking down notes accurately and have no skills in shorthand note taking.

Many reporters at the Times of Swaziland get around this problem by not using direct quotes at all. That’s certainly one way to make sure you don’t misquote people, but it tends to mean that their reports in the newspaper are lifeless. So, not quoting at all is not the best solution. Journalism is a craft and if people are to call themselves journalists they need to learn the craft skills and one of the most important for reporters is note taking.

My tip: If you don’t have the chance to learn shorthand skills at least take a tape recorder with you when you go out on a job.

Friday, 14 September 2007

SWAZILAND TABLOID NEWSPAPERS


The Tabloid Explosion, an exploration of the tabloid press and television in Southern Africa, was launched on Tuesday (12 September 2007). This special edition of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal looks at the debate about whether tabloids are a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing. It also looks at the human rights perspective and whose voices get into the tabloids.

The journal is well worth reading and I recommend it, but I took exception to one of the articles, which claimed that there were no tabloid newspapers in Swaziland. I think this is wrong. And wrong big time.

First of all we need to define what we mean by ‘tabloid’ and then ask why people are bothered about whether the press is tabloid or not.

The main characteristic of the tabloid is that it concentrates on news that is not serious. I wrote on Wednesday that the two daily newspapers in Swaziland, the Swazi Observer and the Times of Swaziland had assigned between 40 percent and 44 percent of editorial space to entertainments and sport (the most ‘non-serious’ news there is) combined. That doesn’t leave room for much else.

Other things you notice about the tabloid press are that they have a large amount of visual material, such as pictures, and big headlines and a lot of the pages are in vivid colour.

Tabloid newspapers contain short reports, which lack detail and avoid complicated explanations; for the tabloids there are usually only two sides of a story (often with someone who is ‘right’ and someone who is ‘wrong’). In the Swazi newspapers, often there are not even two sides to a story, as reporters prefer to use only a single source of information in their reports.

People think it matters whether newspapers are tabloid or not because there is a general widespread unhappiness about the state of the media. This isn’t something that is particular to Swaziland or southern Africa. Across the world there is a feeling that standards of journalism are falling and papers today are worse than newspapers in the past.

Critics believe today’s newspapers contain sensationalism, prurience, triviality and malice and in a drive for profits newspaper owners who are competing for small and even diminishing markets use ‘tabloid’ type material to gain readers who are attractive to advertisers. It is by attracting advertisers that the newspaper companies make their profits.

So how ‘tabloid’ is the Swazi Press? Take a look at any front page of any of the five newspapers that are published in the kingdom during any week and you can see that usually there is a big picture, a big headline (only one story is on the page), hardly any text (sometimes none at all). There may be ‘teaser’ lines and pictures that direct people to articles that are inside the newspaper.

The front page of the Times of Swaziland from 22 August 2007 (pictured above) shows all the elements of the tabloid. A big headline ‘Residents Fight Cops Over Booze’ dominates the page, along with three subsidiary headlines (e.g. ‘As truck carrying booze overturns in 12-car accident’). These are meant to whet the appetitive of readers and make them want to read more.

There is no text with the headline; instead you have to turn over to page two to find out what the story’s all about. There is a big dramatic picture (in colour) showing the booze on the road and people trying to get at it.

The rest of the page has ‘tasters’ for other reports that are inside the paper (‘Manzini Wanderers Lose Violence Case’) and details of a competition. If you stand back from the page a little you can see that it is not really a ‘news’ page, instead it is a poster advertising the newspapers. It is meant to look exciting on a newsstand and encourage people to buy the paper, even if they had not intended to. The Times of Swaziland’s rival the Swazi Observer is trying to do exactly the same thing with its front page.

One way of getting an idea of what kinds of stories newspapers think are most important is to look at what they publish as their main (or lead) story on their front pages.

I looked at one month’s worth of all the Swazi newspapers (8 August to 7 September 2007) and found that the stories were overwhelmingly sensational or trivial. In the Times, 11 out of 21 front pages had a crime story (in the Observer it was seven out of 21). The other front pages in the Times covered stories such as road accidents, the unexpected death of a prominent person, and the prices of bus fares and bread.

The Observer had a similar news agenda and on seven out of the 21 days both the Times and the Observer led the paper on the same story.

In the whole month there were only two stories that were about politics and both were in the Times.

During the month the Swazi News (which comes out on Saturdays) had four editions and three of them were about sex, which included one about a DJ and newsreader allegedly having sex in a radio studio, which I have written about before.

The Weekend Observer (another Saturday paper) also had four editions, two of these were ‘serious’ political stories, another story was about a minister being involved in a car crash and the fourth was about students forging their O-level certificates.

The Times Sunday had four editions and all the main stories could be called ‘serious’ to some extent. These included an attempt by ‘traditionalists’ in Swaziland to sack a High Court judge they disagree with; and the report of a police shooting a man in cold blood, which I have written about previously.


Although the front pages in the Times Sunday are serious, the inside pages rely heavily on sensationalism and trivia. It was the Times Sunday that published the articles describing gays as ‘evil’ and supporting the sexual harassment of women, which I have written about before.

What the survey of the front pages demonstrates, I think beyond any doubt, is that the Swazi newspapers are tabloid in form and in content.

So what should newspapers be like? A serious newspaper should do some or all of the following:

Examine what government is and is not doing
- Report and interpret the news
- Influence citizens’ opinions
- Provide space for rational debate
- Set agenda for government action
- Socialize citizens about politics
- Encourage a political culture to evolve

The Swazi press does hardly any of the above, a topic I’ll return to again in the future.



This is an edited and revised version of a presentation I made on Tuesday 11 September 2007 at the launch of the Tabloid Explosion at Highways Africa, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

The Tabloid Explosion is published by Gender Links.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

DEREK GOES TO AFRICA (4)


It’s that man Derek again. For readers who have stayed the pace, this is the latest (and mercifully last) instalment of the adventures of television weather forecaster, Derek Van Dam.

He is with a group of missionaries from his church in mid-Michigan, United States, who have been in Swaziland to work at the El Shaddai orphanage. He has been sending reports back to the local television station NBC25 in which he shares his experiences with viewers in the US.

In this latest report he reflects on his experiences as he comes to the end of his stay in Swaziland.

I wrote last time about how Derek (pictured above with a Swazi child) and his friends misunderstand the situation they find themselves in. They believe they have come to help Swaziland, although it is unclear what skills the man who reads the weather on local TV has to share.

In the present report, Derek talks about how he and his missionaries have been digging gardens. ‘While planting gardens today, the children instructed us how to do it.’ He then says’ ‘This is a way of making it their own.’ He says this as if the visiting Americans have given Swazi people something they couldn’t make for themselves.

You can see the report, which lasts nearly four minutes, here

Before I wrap up on Derek, I would say that he seems a really sweet, if misguided guy. He has been keeping a blog of his experiences and the entry he makes on his return to his home in the United States is heartfelt. It is reproduced below. You can see more of his blog here

As I come home to the country I once so-adored, I sit here and reflect on the past few weeks with a broad understanding of what reality truly is. Its much clearer now how this trip has changed my life, how its changed the Swazi's life, and how others what I may not even know may have been effected.

I have been given a unique opportunity to share this experience with the world, so take it as you may.

People will never completely grasp the seriousness of a country in trouble until they've breathed it; until they've seen it with their own eyes. I am a new person, with a COMPLETELY different outlook on life. I will do my best to help you understand what its like to be humbled by the face of a dying culture.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

WHAT’S IN THE SWAZILAND PAPERS?

If you had to describe Swaziland’s newspapers to someone who had never seen them before, what would you say?

What are the main characteristics of the two daily and three weekend newspapers?

The most obvious thing to say is that they all have big headlines on top of (mostly) short reports. When you read the reports, you notice they often lack detail and avoid complicated explanation.

There are also lots of pictures and graphics (many of them in colour). Sometimes it isn’t really true to say that you are ‘reading’ the newspaper. Some days there can be more than 60 pictures in any one edition of the Times of Swaziland or the Swazi Observer. Because of the large number of pictures, it is probably more accurate to say you’re ‘looking at’ the paper.

Some days there is no news as such on the front page of the Swazi papers. Instead, you get headlines about stories that are contained inside the newspaper. There is always a big picture on the front page and sometimes a ‘taster’ for a competition that’s inside the newspaper.

The whole idea of the front page is to get people to notice the paper, pick it up and buy it. The front page is not really about journalism: it’s an advert for the paper itself.

If you can’t resist temptation and buy one of the newspapers what do find inside?

To find out more detail about the contents of the Observer and the Times, I did a survey of all editions in the month of May 2005 (twenty editions of each newspaper).

To start with the newspapers aren’t all about news. The number of pages per issue of the Times and Observer run from 36 to 48 and in the survey period the total number of pages in the Observer was 772 of which 144 were full pages of advertising (19 percent of total space), leaving 628 editorial pages to count. In the Times there were 816 pages in total of which 181 were full pages of advertising (22 percent of total space), leaving 635 editorial pages to count.

When you’ve got past the adverts you find that there is more ‘soft’ news reports rather than ‘hard’ news. They concentrate on sport, leisure, celebrity, entertainment and encouraging consumption.

There is relatively little ‘hard’ news, such as politics, business and information of significance to readers.

I found that there are more similarities than differences between the editorial content of the Observer and the Times.

Both newspapers place high importance on ‘soft’ or ‘non-serious’ material. For example, the combined ‘sport’ and ‘entertainment and leisure’ categories (the most non-serious material in the newspapers) equal 44 percent of total space in the Observer and 40 percent in the Times.

The Observer has up to ten pages of sport per day (the Times has up to seven pages) and five pages of entertainments (the Times generally has six pages). By contrast serious comment and analysis averages only one and a half pages per day (5 percent) in the Observer and one page per day (2 percent) in the Times.

The entertainments and sport rely heavily on news from overseas (news of European soccer is particularly prevalent in both papers). ‘Entertainment’ editorial includes news of overseas entertainments and in many cases it is not clear what the relevance the editorial has to Swazis as, for example, many of the movies and television shows that are featured will not be shown in Swaziland since the country has no cinemas and the TV shows do not air locally, not even on satellite.

Neither newspaper has reporters based outside of Swaziland so their ‘World’ news (which amounts to one or two pages per day for both newspapers) is supplied by international news agencies and in many cases the same news reports appear word for word in both newspapers (the same is true of world sport). In the Observer there is a greater concentration on news from other African countries and on some days an entire page is devoted solely to editorial from the continent.

Both newspapers were interested in the same kinds of stories, but the Observer gave greater prominence to the Monarchy, especially to reports (usually with several photographs, and sometimes the whole of page five) of the king or the king’s mother undertaking various official activities.

By concentrating on soft, ‘non serious’ news the Swazi press are doing the people of Swaziland a disservice. Swaziland is not a democracy and all broadcasting is controlled by the state to some extent.

To understand what is going on in their own nation and to have some influence and control over matters that affect them, people must have access to information and they must have space in the newspapers to debate matters of public importance. Access to information and debate can help people to prevent governmental excesses and breed trust in the democratic system.

Swaziland’s newspapers don’t really fulfill these roles. The Swazi Press doesn’t go in for serious, informed debate, preferring instead trivia, such as entertainment ‘news’ from the United States.

If I were a lawyer (which I am not) I might offer some mitigation on behalf of the Swazi journalists. Swaziland is not a democracy and there are examples in the past of journalists being harassed if they try to write and publish material that offends the king and his government. Who would blame the journalist for not taking the risk to write stories or articles that would be unpopular with the ruling elite?

There is not much that can be done about this so long as the king continues to hold absolute powers. The Swazi Constitution signed into law in 2006 does nothing to diminish these powers.

Maybe the international community could exert pressure on the kingdom to allow the media proper editorial freedom with legislation to protect and promote the public interest. This might at least encourage Swazi journalists to stop writing about trivial things and get down to the proper job of journalism.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

JOURNALISM ETHICS IN SWAZILAND

One of the main reason for publishing this blog every day of the week is to monitor the ethical health of the Swazi news media. This is not because I have a personal vendetta against journalists, but rather it is done in the knowledge that media commentators both in Swaziland and in Africa generally have identified many shortcomings in African journalism. In Swaziland senior media practitioners identify the kingdom’s media as partisan, inaccurate and generally unprofessional.

A workshop of civic society stakeholders held in September 2005 which attempted to measure the performance of the media in Swaziland reported that news media lacked credibility and many people saw journalists as lacking in education and experience.

One criticism is that most of the reporters can hardly write a story and they only survive on handouts in the form of press releases and can hardly generate their own story ideas.

In Africa more generally newspapers have been described as very unprofessional, highly biased, sensational with exaggerated reports published out of context, driving Francis Kasoma, a media academic, to conclude that the independent press in Africa has apparently thrown all ethical norms overboard. Therefore, codes of ethics are necessary, he believes, so that journalists can stay on the right track.

Leading the campaign to improve ethical standards of journalism is the Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ), which has a membership of 150 of the estimated 200 journalists working in the kingdom.

In 2002, SNAJ developed and approved a code of conduct to ensure professional standards were maintained by all journalists practicing in the country.

The code was updated in 2005 to include clauses on the coverage of HIV/AIDS and gender issues. However, no organisation has been created to ensure the code of ethics is adhered to, so SNAJ currently relies on willing editors in newsrooms to sensitise journalists about the code. SNAJ has also embarked on an awareness campaign to educate its members about the code.

The code is meant to ensure that members adhere to the highest ethical standards, professional competence and good behaviour in carrying out their duties. Its overriding concern is that members of the media should conduct themselves with a high sense of responsibility without infringing the rights of individuals and society in general.

There are eight articles of the code which are about the personal responsibility of the journalist and these cover such matters as conflict of interest (do not accept bribes), plagiarism; protecting confidential sources; under no circumstances suppressing news (unless it borders on issues of national security); allowing a fair opportunity for organizations or individuals to respond to issues raised in publications; using ethical means to secure information and photographs; respecting embargoes and encouraging journalists to advise a survivor of a sexual offence to go for counselling.

The remaining nine articles cover areas including the public’s right to information (which is unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive); respect for privacy; respect for national and ethnic values (not originating material which encourages discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, colour, creed, gender or sexual orientation); publishing corrections to inaccurate or misleading reports; separating comment from fact; avoiding the publication of speech that might promote hatred; avoiding the identification of survivors of sexual assault; protecting the rights of minors; exercising tact and sensitivity when dealing with people in grief.; avoiding misleading and sensational headlines and the reporting of people with HIV and AIDS.

In the absence of an umbrella body to enforce the code, each newsroom has developed its own professional standards. For instance, the Times of Swaziland has created an internal ombudsman to address concerns of readers and sanction offending journalists. The Observer has its own internal structures to address concerns raised by readers.

In an as yet unpublished pilot survey of the Swazi press, which I undertook over a period of eight weeks in October to December 2006, I found constant breaches of the SNAJ code of conduct. These breaches were in every one of SNAJ’s 19 clauses. They ranged in intensity from relatively minor infringements of fairness (apportioning blame in reports of traffic accidents), and clear bias in reporting on activities of MPs, to very severe examples of hate speech.

The most striking aspect of the infringements was the almost casual disregard for the codes. For example, Article 5, which deals with privacy, states clearly that ‘intrusions into a person’s private life can only be justified when done in the public interest’. The ‘public interest defined as ‘all matters pertaining to and promoting public safety, security, health and general well being of society’ (SNAJ Code Definitions). This article of the code was casually disregarded during the period of the survey.

Illustrations of this were a report of a school student who was forced to drop out of school; another report that was conjecture on why a man committed suicide, speculation over the reasons for a possible suicide (with a photograph of a woman sobbing as she narrates her ordeal); a woman who spoke to reporter on condition of anonymity has her photograph published (she has her eyes backed out but she is clearly identifiable by her clothes and her location). It is impossible to justify any of these reports on the grounds of public interest as defined above.

On the evidence presented here there is still along way to before the Swazi media can consider themselves ethically healthy.

Monday, 10 September 2007

LET’S TALK ABOUT IGNORANCE


I was at a workshop in Mbabane the other week when one of the organisers – a man from England – told us about the time he was present at the birth of his son. The audience (entirely Swazi) lapsed into embarrassed silence, before a couple of Swazi men broke into uncontrollable giggles. The absurdity of a man being with his wife while his son was being born was just too wacky an idea for them to take.

I was reminded of this recently as I was looking through past editions of a relatively new column that has been appearing in the Times of Swaziland each Friday.

It’s called let’s Talk About Sex and on a casual glance it appears to be a column of unbiased information and advice about matters of sexual health. However, if you look a bit closer they turn out to be columns of ignorance, bias and hatred.

Here’s a sample from a column about men being present when their wives give birth.



‘Men are attracted to most women by sight and in the same way will be generally repulsed by sight. When they see the actual birth of the child, some men feel that his girlfriend or wife’s private parts have been “stretched” and therefore the sexual appetite becomes low’ (17 August 2007).


Vusi Dlamini, the sales and marketing manager, of an organisation called the Family Life Association of Swaziland (FLAS), wrote the above nonsense. It turns out that Let’s Talk About Sex, isn’t really about giving Swazis unbiased, factual information about sexual health, it’s actually thinly disguised propaganda for FLAS, an organisation with fundamentalist Christian overtones.

Here’s another one. This time it’s FLAS on why women shouldn’t use sex aids.



‘.. it is dangerous in the sense that some people tend to prefer it even when they are married and feel no satisfaction with their partners. It is said to be a thing for whores, yet a lot of people do it ….’ (10 August 2007).


In the FLAS universe a women without a man isn’t whole and they can’t (aren’t allowed) to exist in their own right. Also, FLAS has a thing about ‘whores’. Here’s FLAS on women who carry condoms.



‘The greater section of the public thinks it is promiscuous and you will readily be labelled a whore’ (3 August 2007).


Swaziland is a closed society and it can be very difficult to get good, unbiased information about any subject. It is that much harder when the subject under question is sex. Cultural taboos make it almost impossible for people to talk openly about sex and to share information and feelings on the subject. There is also a lot of hypocrisy on the subject, especially from the Christian Church. (We all know of pastors who rape children in their congregation, but preach that masturbation is sinful.)

An ordinary person in Swaziland has next to no opportunity to get information (about anything) other than through the media. All forms of modern communications are weak in Swaziland and people in the kingdom rely heavily on word-of-mouth. Culturally, people are likely to defer to people who are considered to be knowledgeable. Simply by allowing a person space in their newspaper, editors give that person the status of ‘knowledgeable person’. This is even if the person doesn’t know what they are talking about and do not deserve such a status.

That means the media have to be especially careful about the qualifications of the people who write for them and the quality of the information that they provide. Let’s Talk About Sex fails badly: it pretends to be unbiased information, but instead offers a very narrow prejudiced view of the world.

This worldview is not only misinformed, it can be incredibly dangerous.

I’ll leave you to think about the most recent column (7 September 2007). Here we are told that you can’t leave your children with homosexuals because ‘a great number of them’ are child abusers. Also, homosexual men are not born ‘gay’; they become gay because they have themselves been abused as children.

The person telling us this is Thuli Rudd, the president of the Gays and Lesbians Against HIV and AIDS Swaziland (GLAHAS). GLAHAS is in turn affiliated to the Swaziland National Network of People Living With HIV and AIDS (SWANNEPHA).

Every thing Rudd says is simply not true. There is no scientific evidence anywhere in the world to support what she says. What is very disturbing is that Rudd is a leader of an organisation that is meant to support homosexuals. Her organisation is in turn affiliated to a second organisation that should be welcoming to all people with HIV AIDS (including homosexuals). Rudd is peddling hatred against homosexuals, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe she doesn’t realise it. After all the kind of blind prejudice she sprouts is quite commonly heard in Swaziland.

But the Times of Swaziland doesn’t get let of so easily. It should cancel the column forthwith. Let’s Talk About Sex is not journalism, it is the worse kind of ignorance: the ignorance that spreads hatred.

Friday, 7 September 2007

REED DANCE – DARK SIDE OF CULTURE

Tens of thousands of maidens this week left the annual Reed Dance to return to their hungry villages, following what the Swazi media have been calling the biggest cultural event in Africa.

But as the dust settles on the traditional event at which ‘maidens’ dance half naked before King Mswati III, news has been emerging in the Times of Swaziland about another, darker, side of Swaziland culture at the Reed Dance.

This is the culture of violence and the abuse of authority. The Times reported on Wednesday (5 September 2007) that the traditional authorities who were given the responsibility of supervising the ‘maidens’ systematically detained and whipped young men who were caught at night trying to get close to the young women.

In a report starkly headlined, ‘27 men whipped at Reed Dance’, the Times reports that the men were caught, whipped, and temporarily detained after invading the camp where the maidens were staying.

The whipping was not an isolated incident and the Times reports that some men were whipped on Saturday and others on Sunday. So we must assume that the detention and whipping of unwelcome visitors was an agreed method of discipline among those tasked with supervising the maidens.

The Times report quotes Muzi Dlamini, one of the men responsible for supervising the maidens, saying that the men were taken to a small tent. ‘They were beaten with sjamboks and sticks. We were disciplining them and I must say they deserved such a punishment.’

He spoke about two separate occasions when men were detained and beaten. ‘After we had detained these boys, there were no more visits from strangers. Indeed it worked for us,’ he said.

The Times gives an objective, if one-sided, report of the incidents. As is typical of just about all reports in the Swazi media, information is gathered from only one source, in this case Muzi Dlamini, the man who carried out the whipping.

Although we should be grateful for the Times for reporting this matter, the newspaper misses an important point in the story: that the authorities had taken it upon themselves to give out punishment to the men. In traditional custom in Swaziland, the punishers may have been entitled to act in the way that they did, but in Swazi law they were not. There is at the very least a case here for Dlamini and the others who helped him to face prosecution for assault.

Not only did the Times miss the wider context of the story, it failed to connect it to another story of violence at the Reed Dance it has been running for two days this week. On Tuesday (4 September 2007), the Times reported that one of the senor overseers of the maidens, Ntfonjeni Dlamini, assaulted a group of maidens with a stick. He hurt two of them so badly, the Times reports, that they had to go to Lobamba Clinic, where one of them was treated for injuries to her right leg and bruises all over her body. The other was reported to have bruises all over her body and was bleeding on her back.

Four other ‘maidens’ were also thrashed, but were not as badly injured. Confusingly, the Times referred to the maidens as ‘girls’ but never gave their ages. In Swazi traditional culture all women are considered to be children with no legal status and subject to discipline by their men folk (usually meaning their fathers or husbands).

This time the Times published quotes from more than one source. The injured ‘girls’ have their say and the Times also interviews the man in overall charge of the maidens and Ntfonjeni Dlamini himself. Dlamini said he did not know that any maidens were injured.

The Times followed up the story the following day (Wednesday 5 September 2007) reporting that the two women had reported Ntfonjeni Dlamini to the police. The Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse also commented about the wrongfulness of beating children.

But the Times couldn’t wait for the police investigation to conclude, it has already convicted Ntfonjeni Dlamini.

In an editorial comment, the Times says, ‘Ntfonjeni Dlamini … seems to believe he holds the right to beat up anybody’s child for no apparent reason.’ It called on ‘traditional authorities’ to take strong action against the blemishing of the Reed Dance, which it describes as a ‘colourful event’ and an opportunity for Swaziland to make a bit of money from tourists.

As well as the two stories already mentioned the Times also gave an account of eight stabbings in isolated incidents at the Reed Dance. The newspaper reported that those stabbed were involved in brawls over ‘girls’. (Wednesday 5 September 2007)

We should welcome the Times reporting, even if it hasn’t done a particularly good job of the matter. The only other daily newspaper in Swaziland, the Swazi Observer, failed to report any of the ‘downside’ to the Reed Dance. This is to be expected from the most traditional of newspapers in Swaziland and one run by a company that is effectively owned by the Swazi Royal Family.

But news editors at the Times should stand back a little and take a look at the bigger picture. It reported the various disturbances at the Reed Dance as if they were isolated incidents, when they were in fact connected.

There are two themes that emerge from these stories that deserve further consideration from the Swazi media.

The first is the role of those in ‘traditional’ authority and the way they are allowed to ignore the law. The Times in its editorial comment cast doubt on whether anything would be done about Ntfonjeni Dlamini and we might assume this is because in Swaziland the ruling elite relies on the upholding of Swazi traditions for their power. A legal system that places a person’s human rights at its centre would not tolerate ‘Swazi custom’ for one moment.

The second is the general attitude of Swazi society to its women. Many see the annual Reed Dance as an event that cements Swazi culture, but others with a more modern outlook, believe it to be outdated and some say the Reed Dance, is old fashioned and makes a mockery of women, as it has become little more than a showcase for the king to choose a new bride.

Some more investigation on these themes by the Swazi media would be most welcome.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

HOW FOREIGN MEDIA SEE SWAZILAND

There is a perception within the Swazi media that journalists overseas only report negatively about the kingdom. In particular they believe King Mswati III gets unfair coverage when it comes to his personal life style.

To see whether this was true I set up a small research project to systematically monitor the world’s news media to find out how Swaziland was reported abroad. To do this it would be impractical to read every newspaper, listen to all radio stations and watch all television stations in the world. Instead, I used Google News as the source material. Google News is a computer-generated news site that collects together headlines from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide.

I have been downloading items on Swaziland from Google News every day since February 2005. I do this by requesting from the computer site all items that contain the word ‘Swaziland’ in them. To make the number of downloads manageable Google News only sends you one copy of an item even if it appears in more than one publication. That means, for example, if a news agency such as the Associated Press sends out a story and it is used by a dozen newspapers in the United States only one version will be picked up and sent out to you by Google News.

For this research I took the period for one year starting March 2005 and counted the items for every other month (March, May, July and so on).

In that time there were 166 items counted. The first thing to notice about this is how few there were. The 166 items averaged just over one a day and many of the items were small reports of less than 100 words. It would seem that there is not much interest in the rest of the world about what is going on in Swaziland.

The research threw up a lot of interesting questions and there are too many to tackle in only one post, so here I’ll look only at the items that appeared in media published outside of sub-Saharan Africa. I’ll try to deal with sub-Saharan Africa at another time.

Of the 166 items published in total only 40 were published outside sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half the 40 items (17) came from the United States and Canada, with the majority of the rest spread more or less evenly between UK, Asia and the Middle East.

These bare statistics don’t tell the full story of the way that overseas’ media see Swaziland.

The Swazi press is always very defensive when King Mswati III’s activities are reported in the foreign media. The Swazi’s tend to exaggerate the importance of the king to overseas’ media and imagine a concerted campaign against him. This is particularly so when it comes to the expensive lifestyle the king leads. (In August 2007, Forbes.com estimated that King Mswati III had a net worth of 200 million US dollars, or one billion, four hundred million emalangeni).

Only eight of the items counted in the survey referred to the lavish lifestyle of the king and five of these were from the UK media. The UK media pays little attention to Swaziland, but when it does it does seem to hone in on the king’s lifestyle. Fully five of the six items on Swaziland in the UK media were about the king.

A classic example of the type is this report from the Times of London headed, ‘Where the money went: self-interest and stupidity’. It ran for only 49 words but in this small space it managed to touch on many concerns about the king. The report expertly links the extravagant spending of the king to the fact that the newspaper’s readers indirectly contributed to this ‘self-interest and stupidity’ by giving 550,000 British pounds (more than seven million emalangeni or one million US dollars) in foreign aid to Swaziland.

SWAZILAND King Mswati III has spent £500,000 on eight Mercedes cars with gold-plated number plates, £8 million on palaces for his 13 wives and £330,000 on his 36th birthday party. Swaziland, where 700,000 people live in poverty, received £15 million of foreign aid in 2003, including £550,000 from Britain.

Times 2 July 2005




Not all reporting on the king was negative. There were five ‘positive’ stories about the king (mostly about him being involved in talks to bring trade to Swaziland). Four of these positive stories came from Middle East countries and the fifth was from China.

The US and Canada concentrated on health and development issues. All but one of the seven items on AIDS and HIV were from these countries. But the US and Canada is also concerned about human rights issues in Swaziland with five items on human rights issues originating from these countries. There was some cross over between stories about human rights and King Mswati III. For example the Washington Times, carried a United Press International agency report stating that the king had refused to sign Swaziland’s new constitution because he disagreed with sections on religion and taxing the Royal family.

Four of the items from the US and Canada were not really about Swaziland at all. Rather, they were items in small town newspapers about local people who were doing charitable work in Swaziland. The stories were about people within the newspapers’ circulation area and the news angle of the reports was the charitable work they were doing. Had they been doing the same work in a country other than Swaziland they would still make news.

I have written before that these kinds of stories aren’t about what’s going on in Swaziland, instead they’re about what local people in the area the newspapers serve are doing to help Swaziland. The kingdom is being portrayed as helpless and unable to take care of itself. The impression given from these types of newspaper reports is that the ‘heroes’ of the story are whites of European descent lifting up the helpless Swazis - an image that is false.

Possibly the harshest lesson for the Swazi journalists to learn is that hardly anyone outside of Swaziland is interested in the kingdom. Swaziland has no significance on the international stage because it is not strategically placed (there are no ports on world trade routes, for instance). Nor does Swaziland have much economic importance, such as a wealth of raw materials that are important in world manufacturing.

This lack of interest is reflected in the world’s media. International news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press do not have offices in the kingdom and when there is a potentially interesting story, such as the annual Reed Dance, foreign journalists travel into Swaziland for a day or so and then move on to their next job.

If Swazi journalists want the world to know more about Swaziland they should take advantage of the shortage of international reporters by writing their own news reports and articles and supplying them to foreign media.

If they really don’t like what’s being written about Swaziland, they have an ideal opportunity to change the situation.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

REED DANCE - VIEW FROM ABROAD


Swaziland has just experienced what traditionalists in the country like to claim is the ‘Biggest cultural event in Africa’. According to the Swazi Observer and the Times of Swaziland about 100,000 ‘maidens’ paraded and danced in front of the king in what one Observer reporter called, ‘a world-class cultural heritage extraordinaire’.


As in previous years the foreign media saw the Reed Dance rather differently. For them the Reed Dance is a cultural curiosity with sexual overtones in which ‘virgins’ dance half naked in front of the king. This headline from the online news site Earth Times.com gives a flavour of this: ‘Thousands of virgins line up for inspection by Swazi king’.

The South Africa Press Association (SAPA) news agency, whose report appeared in news media across South Africa (including the Independent group of newspapers), said this,
‘Tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins have lined up for inspection by King Mswati III on Sunday in Swaziland's annual reed dance, which is always riven with speculation over whether the king will choose a new bride.’

Canada’s Calgary Herald which headlined its report ‘Swaziland’s king ponders 14th wife at annual dance’ took a similar view,
‘Tens of thousands of chanting, bare-breasted maidens paraded before King Mswati III of Swaziland Sunday, many of them hoping to catch his eye and be picked out to become his 14th wife.’


The Daily Telegraph, London, UK, made more of an effort than other news media to place the Reed Dance ceremony into a wider context, although when it came to the headline it still followed the pack: ‘Swaziland king has eyes for 14th wife’.

In its report the Telegraph quoted Nothando Nhlengethwa, 21, who was acting as the Indvuna, or leader of the maidens. She told the Telegraph,

‘Our culture and the reed dance is my pride and joy.’

She went on, ‘If you take pride for yourself, you can always do it for your country. It helps us to know who we are and the people we should look up to, the King and princes. He is a great king to us.’

The Telegraph report went on, ‘Around 70 per cent of the population live on less than 50p a day, in stark contrast to the wealth and opulence of the royal family. Six weeks ago the country saw its biggest general strike in a decade, demanding, among other things, multi-party democracy.

‘Political parties were banned by King Mswati's late father, Sobhuza II, in 1973 on the grounds that they were divisive, after three opposition MPs were elected.


‘The current monarch, who acceded to the throne while a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset, appoints the prime minister and cabinet, all judges, two-thirds of the upper house, 15 per cent of the lower house, and is commander in chief of the armed forces.

‘“Here we have a problem: the King has all powers vested in him,” said Jan Sithole, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions. “We want the King to reign but not to rule.”’

The Telegraph reminded readers, ‘The dancers far outnumbered those who went on strike a few weeks ago, although opposition figures say rural families have no choice but to send their daughters to participate, as they can be fined a cow if they do not.’



The Telegraph’s report was unusual in that it gave context to the event, but it was also unusual in its length. Most reports I have seen were only of a few paragraphs long, confirming in my mind that the world outside Swaziland isn’t really very interested in what goes on in the kingdom.

There also seemed to be fewer media outlets reporting on the event than I have seen in the past two years that I have been observing Swaziland. The Swazi Observer claimed to have met journalists from the UK, France, Belgium and Taiwan.

South Africa was well represented by reporters, but that is understandable since Swaziland is on their doorstep and the opportunity to photograph bare-breasted virgins is one that South African newspapers would find hard to resist.

But I couldn’t find any reports on the Reed Dance in American newspapers, leaving me to assume that the Associated Press (AP) news agency did not attend. American newspapers rely almost exclusively for their news of Swaziland on reports from the AP. So, if the AP wasn’t there, as far as America is concerned it never happened.

A FOOTNOTE ON NUMBERS. The Swazi press reported there were 100,000 dancers at the ceremony, but SAPA only saw 40,000. Meanwhile, SABC Africa Television reported there were 55,000 and the Daily Telegraph, UK, quoting ‘officials’ went with the 100,000. They can’t all be right.

Last year it was estimated that 30,000 women took part.

REED DANCE - LONE VOICE FROM HOME

Among all the excited prose published in the Swazi Press over the past week about the Reed Dance, there has been one quiet, thoughtful voice that deserves recognition.

Musa Hlophe, writing in the Times Sunday (2 September 2007), did something that is virtually unheard of in Swazi journalism: he put a news story into some context.

Media folk had been crowing all week that at least 100,000 ‘maidens’ had signed up for the celebrations. This is up from the 30,000 who were said to have taken part in 2006. No explanation was offered by the journalists for this increase in interest since last year. (I am giving the Swazi media the benefit of the doubt on the numbers, although some foreign media put the number closer to 40,000, not 100,000).

Hlophe thinks he might have the answer. He reminds us that at the Reed Dance most of the girls received their first decent meal in a very long time. Now, the show is over they only have grinding poverty to look forward to and the hundreds of trucks ferrying the thousands of girls to the Reed Dance could have been better used to deliver the much needed water and foodstuff to Swaziland’s starving population.

Hlophe wrote,

‘Judging from the appearances of these dancing girls, one may be fooled into thinking all is well in the kingdom of Eswatini.

‘What will be hidden to the unsuspecting outsider is that most of these girls will have had a balanced meal while at the Reed Dance. That most of these girls (about 80 per cent of them) come from families who are among the 500,000 people who survive on food aid. After all the glamour of this week’s events, these girls return to grinding poverty by Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever their masters feel they are now disposable, having fulfilled their responsibilities to our rulers and their visitors.

‘What the unsuspecting visitors do not know is that Swaziland is a country in serious crisis. It is said we are still number one in the world, with the highest HIV prevalence rates, notwithstanding the slight reduction, We are a country with diminishing opportunities for foreign direct investments, with 70 per cent of the country’s population living on less than one dollar a day.

‘Further compounded by one of the severest drought in living memory, Swaziland would not be expected to be celebrating the way it seems to be just now. The hundreds of trucks ferrying the thousands of girls to Ludzidzini could have been used to deliver the much needed water and foodstuff to the starving population.

‘But who counts in Swaziland are the people among the ruling elite. In Swaziland, the poor have no rights or needs of their own. The ruling elite will now and again run charities for the poor and elderly ad the poor take these as some form of generosity by their masters.’

Musa Hlophe writes a weekly column in the Times Sunday.