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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

BROADCASTING BILLS GO TO PARLIAMENT



Broadcasting legislation enters Swazi parliament – good news or bad?

Media Institute of Southern Africa - Swaziland
Alert – Media Analysis, 7 March 2013

Swaziland’s minister of information, communication and technology has tabled two broadcasting-related Bills in the Senate, according to the Swaziland Senate running sheet dated Wednesday 6 March 2013

Minister Winnie Magagula tabled the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill 2013 and the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill 2013.

It is now expected the Bills will be discussed by various parliamentary committees who, it is understood, will seek consultation from anyone interested in the future of Swaziland’s television and radio. No dates or information are yet forthcoming on the government’s public consultation process.

The Bills appear in the Swaziland Government Gazette of Friday 15 February 2013, vol. LI, No. 19. 

The Swaziland Broadcasting Bill aims to:

·         provide for the regulation of sound and television broadcasting services in Swaziland
·         provide for the maximum availability of broadcasting to the people through the three tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasting services
·         provide for freedom of expression through broadcasting
·         provide for broadcasting to contribute to the socio-economic development of the society, nation building, provision of education and the strengthening of the spiritual and moral fibre
·         provide for matters incidental to broadcasting.    

The Bill is broken into seven parts, covering topics such as “types of licenses and licensing procedure”, “programming, scheduling and advertising”, and “complaints”.

The Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) welcomes any move to free up the country’s broadcasting sector. We also welcome any opportunity to engage with the minister of information, communication and technology on matters of broadcasting and media freedom. On the face of it, the Broadcasting Bill – when it speaks to the “maximum availability of broadcasting to the people” and providing for “public, commercial and community broadcasting services” – is an encouraging sign.

However, on further consideration of the Bill, MISA-Swaziland would call for clarification on several points.

Firstly, we would like an explanation of how the broadcaster will strengthen the “spiritual and moral fibre” of the nation? Moreover, we would appreciate a more precise definition of “spiritual and moral fibre” because on first reading it is not altogether clear what this means.

MISA is concerned that the “spiritual and moral firbe” objective might in reality clash with the “freedom of expression through broadcasting” objective. In other words, MISA is concerned that “spiritual and moral fibre” may be used to suppress legitimate questioning and criticism of the nation’s rich and powerful.

We call for either the removal of the “spiritual and moral fibre” objective from the Bill, or alternatively, we call for a precise definition that runs in spirit with universal notions of freedom of expression, namely, that all citizens are free to speak their mind on all forms of broadcasting.

Further, MISA-Swaziland requires clarification in regard to Part III, 27 (1)(a) of the Broadcasting Bill, under “Programming, Scheduling and Advertising”. The Bill here stipulates that anyone or any organisation who holds a broadcasting license must broadcast “nothing… that shall offend against good taste, morality or decency or is likely to encourage or incite crime or lead to disorder, or be offensive to public feeling, repugnant, or conducted in bad faith”. 

MISA-Swaziland calls on the ministry of information to clearly clarify the following terms and expand on their meanings: “good taste”; “morality”; “decency”; “likely to incite crime or lead to disorder”; “offensive to public feeling”; “repugnant”; and “conducted in bad faith”.

These are loaded words and terms with wide-ranging meanings. They could be used in the name of goodness and media freedom just as much as they might be deployed in the name of repression and censorship. Therefore, in the name of legal accountability and openness, MISA-Swaziland calls on the government to define these words and terms in a manner consistent with Articles 23, 24 and 25 of the Swazi Constitution.

Article 23 provides for “protection of conscience or religion”. Article 24 provides for “protection of freedom of expression”, including “freedom of the press and other media”. And Article 25 offers protection of “freedom of assembly and association”. 

The words and terms in question, if not removed from the Bill altogether, should also be defined in a manner consistent with the Bill’s objective to “provide for the freedom of expression through broadcasting”.

Finally, in regard to the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill 2013, MISA calls for clarification on Part VII (43), under the heading “General”. This Article is titled “Powers of the King in a public emergency”.

In part, it reads: “Where there is in force a proclamation of a state of public emergency or threatened public emergency under the Constitution, the King may make an order authorising any officer of any authority to – (a) take over all broadcasting stations or any particular broadcasting station in Swaziland; and (b) control and direct all broadcasting services from the broadcasting stations or broadcasting station to which the provisions of paragraph (a) relate for so long as the King considers it expedient.”

MISA-Swaziland is concerned at the extent to which this Article gives the King absolute power to take over all broadcasting in the nation. Common sense and safety would acknowledge that in the event of a national disaster or violent conflict, the trusted political leaders of a nation should have easier access to certain broadcasting media.

However, to give one person the opportunity to take unfettered control and direction over all broadcast media seems somewhat extreme and, it might be said, counter-productive. Moreover, MISA-Swaziland calls for a clear definition of ‘public emergency’ and ‘threatened public emergency’, as it is not clear what these terms mean. There is a fear that these terms, and this Article, could be used to further entrench the control and influence already wielded by the state-owned and controlled broadcasters. Dictators in other parts of the world have used similar legal provisions to abuse power and take over the media.

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has tightened his grip on the media using a similar provision to the one outlined in the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill. The Economist, a London-based news and international affairs magazine, had this to say about Correa’s authoritarian tendencies in its February 9, 2013 edition.

The president is intolerant of criticism. He has built a powerful government media empire, including two television networks seized from corrupt bankers. Like [the late Venezuelan leader] Mr Chávez and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández, he has abused a provision, intended for national emergencies, in which all television and radio stations are required to carry his broadcasts—no fewer than 1,365 of them between January 2007 and August 2012, according to Fundamedios, a media body. Freedom of expression is a “function of the state”, he claims. He has pursued criminal libel cases against critics, and is pushing to curb the powers of the media-freedom watchdog of the Organisation of American States.”

MISA would warn Swaziland’s leaders and legislators from following the same dubious path as some of these Latin American countries.

The other Bill tabled in Swaziland’s Senate on 6 March 2013 is the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill. This Bill aims to:

·         provide for the establishment of the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation, a national public broadcaster for the Kingdom of Swaziland, by amalgamating the operations and resources of Swazi Television Authority and the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services
·         provide for the licensing of the Corporation
·         provide for the establishment of a Board of Directors to run the Corporation and the procedure for the nomination of the members of the Board
·         provide for the repeal of the Swaziland Television Authority Act 1983
·         provide for matters incidental to public broadcasting.  

In similar fashion to the Broadcasting Bill, The Broadcasting Corporation Bill is broken into seven parts, consisting of topics such as: “establishment and functions of the corporation”, “establishment and function of the board”, “television license and inspectors”, and “financial provisions”.

On initial inspection it is thought that the Corporation Bill intends to establish a body not dissimilar to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), an organisation that emerged from the ashes of Apartheid South Africa’s dangerous and racist state broadcaster.

The SABC, which is called a ‘public broadcaster’ and in many ways is a public broadcaster, is however still grappling today (19 years after the fall of Apartheid) with the idea of what a true public broadcaster is. Without going into the detail, but rarely a week goes by without allegations of state censorship or ‘shelving’ of inconvenient stories, or accusations of ‘orders from on high’ disallowing criticism of certain people or certain organisations.

This is said only to illustrate the challenges ahead for Swaziland: converting a state broadcaster that is controlled by the government and other leaders into a broadcaster that truly serves and reflects the interests and concerns of the people, is no easy task. It is, however, an achievable task. MISA-Swaziland believes it is a task well worth the effort.

In consideration of the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill 2013, MISA calls on the ministry of information to further define “public broadcaster” and “public broadcasting service”.

As it stands, the Bill defines “public broadcasting service” as “any broadcasting service by radio or television which is provided by – the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation; any other statutory body; or a person who receives revenue from the State”. There is seemingly no definition in the Bill for “public broadcaster” or for “national public broadcaster”. This offers reason for concern, but there is time for the ministry to seek consultation so that, before any vote, a fuller and clearer Bill can be produced.

(Also, while repealing the Swaziland Television Authority Act 1983, this might be the time for the government the many other pieces of legislation that currently restrict the free flow of information in Swaziland.)  

MISA understands that the two Bills will now be discussed by various committees before going before a vote in the Senate. No date has been set for a vote in the Senate. If passed, it is understood the Bills will be taken to the House of Assembly where a similar process is expected to take place. It is envisioned, judging by past experience, that this committee, discussion and consulting phase will take some time. Adding complication and possible delay to the procedure is the national elections due to held round August 2013. It has been said that parliament will be busy with budget related matters before moving into campaign mode. Therefore, being realistic, it would appear that timing is not on the side of passing good and fair broadcasting legislation.

MISA-Swaziland, however, does look forward to engaging with the minister of information, communication and technology in order to ensure the spirit of the Bills – providing for freedom of expression through broadcasting – stands a serious chance of becoming a reality.

In as far as how the local media has been reporting on the tabling of the broadcasting Bills, it would be fair to say the coverage has been lacking.

The Swazi Observer, a daily paper effectively owned by King Mswati III, has, at least, been reporting on the progress of the Bills. However the Times of Swaziland, a privately owned daily, is seemingly silent on the story. Most coverage in the Observer has focused on how the broadcasting Bills prohibit political parties from accessing community radio.

As it stands, political parties are barred from contesting for power in Swaziland and there is no community radio. There is one national radio station, coming under the authority of the state-owned and controlled Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service (SBIS). It is heavily censored: citizens must seek approval from their chiefs before speaking on radio, and dissenting or mildly questioning voices are prohibited from airing their views. The one national television station, Swazi TV, under the state-owned and controlled Swaziland Television Authority (STVA), is just as censored as the radio. There is one private radio station in Swaziland, Voice of the Church, speaking mostly to conservative religious matters. And there is one private TV station, Channel S, which panders to the government and ruling elite just as the the state broadcasters do. The founder and former boss of Channel S is currently in jail for corruption.

MISA-Swaziland is a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech and assists journalists to carry out their work.

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