There is an air of unreality about media freedom in Swaziland at the moment.
On the one hand a new Swazi Constitution enacted in 2006 enshrines freedom of expression and freedom of the press, while on the other hand independent news media continue to be hounded by the kingdom’s authorities whenever they publish material the ruling elites do not like.
The most striking example of this harassment happened in March 2007 when the Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers was forced into publishing an abject apology to Swaziland’s King Mwasti III after the Times Sunday ran a news commentary sourced from the international news agency Afrol News in which the following appeared. ‘Swaziland is increasingly paralysed by poor governance, corruption and the private spending of authoritarian King Mswati III and his large royal family. The growing social crisis in the country and the lessening interest of donors to support King Mswati’s regime has also created escalating needs for social services beyond the scale of national budgets.’
Such open criticism of the king is not allowed in Swaziland (not even in so-called independent newspapers like the Times Sunday). The publisher was summoned to the Royal Palace and told to issue a public apology or his newspapers would be closed down. The apology was swiftly forthcoming.
This is not an isolated incident of censorship by the king. In February 2007, the king’s chief executive officer Bheki Dlamini barred journalists at a press conference from asking the king questions relating to the recently-formed Swaziland Police Union, whose formation had shaken the Swazi establishment.
In the recent past the king also banned newspapers from writing about his wives without his permission, even while covering official events. This happened after the Times Sunday interviewed one of his wives (with her consent) while she was sick in hospital.
The power of the king is so great in Swaziland that news media in the kingdom enforce self-censorship when opportunities to report critically about him occur. In August 2007, the world’s media reported a survey from Forbes in New York that placed King Mswati III among one of the top 15 richest monarchs in the world.
He was revealed as the richest monarch in sub-Saharan Africa and the youngest (at age 39) among the monarchs in the top 15. The king’s wealth was estimated at 200 million US dollars (approx. 1,4 billion Rand). Foreign news reports noted that more than 70 percent of Swazis lived on less than 1 US dollar a day and that more than half the population relied on food aid donated by international agencies to survive. The Swazi media mentioned none of this.
The air of unreality about media freedom extends further than the newspapers. In June 2007 MISA Swaziland organized a workshop to advocate for the kingdom’s state controlled television and radio stations to adopt a system of public service broadcasting (PSB) which would provide greater access to the airwaves to a wide range of people to share information and ideas.
At present broadcasting in Swaziland is strictly controlled and only news and information that supports the monarchy and government can be aired.
The workshop was told by the Ministry of Information and Public Service that the kingdom’s radio stations were close to implementing a PSB model. Participants heard that the stations’ collective mission statement committed them to be fully under PSB by the year 2000. Workshop participants were too polite to point out that this deadline had already been missed by seven years and that the commitment to PSB by the radio stations was so weak that management had not even bothered to update their mission statement.
The truth is that the ruling elites have nothing to gain by giving up their control of the airwaves and will therefore not do so willingly. Instead, they placate media freedom advocates with fine words and promises of good intentions.
The Swazi government is keen to give the impression that it is committed to reforming the 30-plus restrictive media laws in the kingdom, but media stakeholders doubt its sincerity.
In 2007 the government introduced seven parliamentary bills, including the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, Swaziland Media Commission Bill, Swaziland Public Broadcasting Corporation Bill, Swaziland Broadcasting Bill and the Books and Newspapers Bill.
What all these bills have in common is that they purport to place the interests of the media at their centres and they have not originated from within Swaziland. A Commonwealth Secretariat consultant was engaged to draft the bills, relying for inspiration on bills that presently exist in democratic countries. The fact that Swaziland is not a democracy was apparently overlooked.
In Swaziland, customary law, which has equal status with the Roman Dutch Common Law and statutes, continues to restrict freedom of the media and freedom of expression. For instance, there are cultural dictates that prevent people from criticising or questioning those in authority. Although, in theory, the Constitution is supreme over all other laws, unwritten customary law wields enormous power in practice and because Swazi Law and Custom is not codified, it cannot be tested against the Constitution.
Members of a workshop held for media stakeholders to discuss the bills before they were piloted in Parliament saw the unreality of the approach taken by the consultant and concluded that their own input was irrelevant because ‘traditional authorities’ in the kingdom had not been consulted on the bills’ contents. Since nothing happened in Swaziland without the consent of these ‘traditional authorities’ the bills as presently written had no value, they said.
The introduction of the new bills may be a smokescreen to obscure the fact that there are no real changes in media freedom on offer.
This was evident when the Swazi House of Assembly set up a select committee to investigate Mbongeni Mbingo, the editor of the Times Sunday, following a comment piece he wrote in his newspaper criticising the House Speaker for not allowing a debate to take place on possible amendments to the kingdom’s constitution. The House of Assembly said the editor was in contempt of Parliament.
In October 2007, the select committee cleared the editor, citing his rights under the constitution to freedom of expression. But at the same time the committee showed it had no real commitment to freedom of expression when it recommended two measures that would further restrict press freedom in Swaziland.
The first measure was a recommendation that all journalists who cover Parliament should be accredited; effectively meaning that the government would choose which journalists should be allowed to cover and which should not.
It also means the government can decide to withdraw accreditation from anyone whose reporting upsets it. It could also mean that journalists who cover Parliament would be intimidated against reporting critical stories for fear of losing accreditation and maybe their jobs as a result.
The second measure was a recommendation from the select committee for the hated Media Council Bill to be reintroduced by Parliament. The Media Council Bill is designed to force statutory regulation on the media. This move ignores work that the media houses themselves have made to form a Media Complaints Commission (MCC) to monitor standards.
The Swaziland National Association of Journalists, with the support of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Swaziland, launched the MCC in March but it was not until November 2007 that media owners agreed to fund the commission’s operations and also fund setting up the MCC as a Trust.
The attack on the Times Sunday editor should not be seen in isolation. Earlier in the year the Swazi parliament had turned up the heat on dissenting journalists by increasing fines on journalists and media houses who publish articles deemed to be critical of or offending against Parliament or MPs.
MISA Swaziland called these measures blatant discrimination 'likely to scare the already docile Swazi press which cannot freely report on issues due to a litany of restrictions, laws and constant intimidation from authorities.'
The Swazi government also attacked the free press generally. In June 2007, the Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Njabulo Mabuza, banned health workers from talking to the media in response to a number of stories that had been published highlighting the impact in the kingdom of a critical drug shortage.
Workers were forbidden to have any type of communication, including interviews and casual or ‘indiscreet’ conversations, whether at clubs, hotels, bars or private parties with journalists. Journalists were also barred from Mbabane Government Hospital, the kingdom’s key medical facility, whose problems had been highlighted in the newspapers.
On June 23, the Times of Swaziland experienced the effects of the minister’s censorship order when its photographer, Albert Masango, was denied access to the hospital. Hospital security harassed and pulled Masango out of the premises and carried him out to the gate.
One of the more bizarre examples of media harassment in 2007 involved a controversial TV repairman turned church pastor called Justice Dlamini who threatened two journalists with death through divine intervention.
Dlamini (who incidentally writes a regular column in the Weekend Observer newspaper and makes many appearances on Swazi television and radio) shocked a church gathering, which also included cabinet ministers, when he declared from the pulpit that he was praying for the death of two journalists, Times of Swaziland Managing Editor Martin Dlamini and reporter Nhlanhla Mathunjwa, whom he claimed wrote badly about him.
This followed a story published by the Times of Swaziland in March 2007 in which the pastor was said to have been involved a squabble over a church vehicle with one of his subordinate pastors.
The death threat caused much concern among the media fraternity in Swaziland, but both men remain alive. Of interest to media observers is not that the pastor made the threat, but that the media had so little confidence in themselves that they took the pastor seriously.
A STORY THE SWAZI MEDIA MISSED
CLOSURE THREAT TO TIMES
LONG HISTORY OF SWAZI CENSORSHIP