Media houses in Swaziland are often criticised for not being very reflective about the work that they do.
However, at regular intervals you will find Swazi journalists criticising media people abroad for the way they write or broadcast about Swaziland. Usually, the Swazi journalists are unhappy about the way King Mswati III is portrayed (i.e. as a lavish spender who is out of touch with his people).
It is a great pity that the Swazi media do not give over more time and space to reflect on what they think their role should be in Swaziland (beyond being cheer leaders for the king).
I was reminded of this at the breakfast meeting organised by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) – Swaziland Chapter for World Press Freedom Day last Friday (2 May 2008). One speaker said that it was all right trying to teach people how to be journalists but there was nothing better than learning ‘on the job’ what it means to be a journalist in Swaziland. It was the bit about ‘journalist in Swaziland’ that struck me, as if there were something special about Swaziland.
People often like to think about Swaziland as being unique. Some people even go so far as to believe that Swaziland has been specifically singled out by God (in a good way, I hasten to add. With all the suffering in the kingdom, one could be excused for thinking God was punishing the place.)
I don’t think Swaziland is that unique, and especially the journalism in the kingdom. Journalists do face problems in Swaziland, especially when you consider that it is not a democracy, but journalists in other countries also have their problems.
Having said that, I’d like to draw your attention to an article that appeared in the Namibian newspaper in Windhoek, Namibia (7 March 2008). It was headlined ‘The Role of Journalism in Namibia’ and written by a university lecturer, Robin Tyson.
What struck me about the article was that if you deleted the word ‘Namibia’ and replaced it with ‘Swaziland’ what Tyson has to say about Namibia would apply very much to Swaziland.
Tyson wrote (of Namibia), ‘Unfortunately, after 17 years of independence, there remains a gap between the “freedom of speech” espoused in the Constitution, and the application of antiquated laws’.
Tyson also made reference to a move by the Namibian government to introduce a Government Media Council (something that the Swazi Government also from time to time threatens to do). Namibia’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting said when introducing the Media Council, ‘the media has the power to contribute to our nation building and socio-economic development’.
However, Tyson points out, that in an editorial responding to these comments Gwen Lister, editor of The Namibian, reminded people that while the media have rights and responsibilities, those responsibilities ‘are towards the people and not towards the Government of the day’.
A former Namibian Prime Minister Dr Hage Geingob himself often used to say, the Namibian nation is a house built with bricks. Remove one brick (by publishing ‘damaging’ stories, for instance) and the entire structure might fall. Some media therefore resort to what the late Zimbabwean journalist William Musarurwa called ‘minister and sunshine journalism’. Following this model, ministers opening clinics, schools or shopping centres would dominate the headlines. (Any regular viewer of Swazi TV News or listener to SBIS radio would immediately recognise ‘sunshine journalism’ as the dominant news agenda for both these state-owned news organisations).
But media have a duty to probe and to ask difficult questions and to provide a platform for democratic debate and a ‘vent’ for people’s opinions.
In Namibia, NBC radio introduced a PM’s Question Time, which allowed listeners to hear the Prime Minister and to give him feedback on what they thought. What Swazi Prime Minister would have the courage to do such a thing? The nearest we have is a monthly breakfast meeting attended by senior journalists and the PM and other Cabinet ministers. But if you look at the journalism that results from these meetings you can see that they are very tame affairs. Certainly, there are no journalists holding the government to account at these meetings.
In his article, Tyson refers to a new book from UK journalist Nick Davies (Flat Earth News, 2008) in which Davies says that media are no longer strong and vibrant searchers after that elusive ‘truth’. Instead, they often fail to check the most basic of untruths (or incomplete truths) given by a company, industry or even minister. They are susceptible to spin of the most blatant nature.
Rather, and often because of understaffing and time pressures, they simply grab the press release or speech and publish verbatim.
There also seems to be confusion about what news actually is. News should be, objective, honest, accurate, balanced, and, within all possible degrees, true.
Tyson reminds us that journalism codes of ethics in Namibia (and, of course, also in Swaziland) highlights all of these factors, also encouraging fair treatment of minorities such as children, gays and the disabled.
Tyson says no media editor in their right mind would tolerate ‘lies’ to be published, for, in the long term, it would lead to the publication losing all credibility and, thus, sales. The existing laws on defamation provide ample recourse to those aggrieved by ‘untrue’ reporting.
Because of this, all media publish or broadcast corrections where errors are made. After all, journalists are also human. But, Tyson says, the ‘untruths’ that media are being accused of are, in the vast majority, not news at all. They are letters to the editor, editorial comments, columns by writers, analysis pieces, or other items of a subjective nature.
Tyson says this needs to be seen as opinion rather than fact, subjective rather than objective writing. In other words, when reading a newspaper, we need to understand the clear difference between fact (news stories) and opinion (editorials, columns, letters, SMS messages, etc).
Tyson leaves us with a rallying call, which I support. ‘We must empower ourselves to become involved in the debate. We need to […] become active voices in these debates. If we disagree with a caller, phone in to the radio show. If we don't agree with a letter writer or columnist, write to the newspaper.
‘Let us use the existing media platforms, not as propaganda machines of “sunshine journalism”, but as communication marketplaces where we can meet, talk, and, finally perhaps, agree to disagree.’
SWAZILAND MEDIA FREEDOM DAY