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Thursday, 2 May 2013

PRESS FREEDOM AND THE ‘NATION’



In April 2013 Bheki Makhubu the editor of the Nation magazine in Swaziland and its owners, Swaziland Independent Publishers, were convicted of ‘scandalising the court’ after two articles criticising the judiciary were published in 2009 and 2010. Makhubu and the publisher were fined a total of E400,000 (US$44,000) by the Swaziland High Court, of which half had to be paid within three days or Makhubu would immediately be sent to jail for two years.

Both Makhubu and the publisher have appealed the conviction. Part of the appeal concerns a matter of law relating to the way the case was brought to court.

A paper, just published, called Swaziland Press Freedom: The case of Bekhi Makhubu and the Nation magazine, reviews the case and the press freedom and human rights issues the conviction throws up. It is available free-of-charge on scribd dot com.

The wheels of justice grind very slowly in Swaziland and it is unlikely that the appeal in the Supreme Court will be heard before at least November 2013, and possibly much later still. By the time the appeal is heard many people will have forgotten what all the fuss is about.

The purpose of the paper is to bring together details of the story so far (May 2013). It is not a critique of the decision, but it is an attempt to bring under one cover all the available information on the case in order to assist those people in the future who might need a quick ‘primer’.

Section 1 of the paper summaries the judgement of the High Court case, detailing the background to the offence and the penalties imposed.

Section 2 reproduces the two articles complained of, using text supplied by the High Court of Swaziland.

Section 3 gives a more detailed account of the judgement of the High Court, reproducing the main points of Judge Bheki Maphalala’s summary of the case.

Section 4 covers the reaction to the judgement. This includes material from a large number of international organisations and groups within Swaziland which campaign on human rights issues. The section also summaries some of the reactions from journalists who work in Swaziland. They admitted to their readers they were ‘scared’ by the High Court ruling.

Section 5 gives details of the appeal made by Makhubu and Swaziland Independent Publishers. They say the decision was both unlawful and constitutional.

Section 6 gives an insight into the history of the Nation magazine and its previous significant run-in with the state authorities. In May 2001 Swaziland police raided offices of the Nation in defiance of the kingdom’s High Court. The Nation, which had been banned by the government earlier that month, because it had not been properly registered as a newspaper.

Section 7 is the first of two sections detailing the background to Swaziland. This section studies the media freedom landscape in the kingdom where although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the king may waive these rights at his discretion, and the government often restricts these rights.

Section 8 gives background to the human rights situation in Swaziland. The constitution became effective in 2006, but the ruling elites have largely ignored its provisions. This means, for example, that although the constitution allows for freedom of assembly, political parties remain banned.

The paper concludes with an appendix which is a digest of articles from previous editions of the Nation magazine that are available on-line. The cover line of the Nation states it ‘speaks truth to power’, and the articles show this is not an idle boast.

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