Media freedom is not improving in Swaziland.
That will come as no surprise to observers of the media scene in the kingdom, but this is the only conclusion that can be reached after reading a new report officially launched on Saturday (3 May 2008) to coincide with World Press Freedom Day that details the state of media freedom in Swaziland.
So This Is Democracy 2007? The State of Media Freedom in Southern Africa, published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) looks at media freedom throughout the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region. The section on Swaziland identifies ‘an air of unreality surrounds media freedom in Swaziland. 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 that the ruling elites do not like.
‘Swaziland is not a democracy and the kingdom is effectively ruled by King Mswati III. A new constitution that underpins the position of the monarch, and on paper allows freedom of expression and freedom of the press (but leaves political parties banned), came into force in February 2006. There is no evidence that the constitution has made any appreciable change to freedom in the kingdom.’
The section on Swaziland (which I wrote for MISA) continues:
Media Government relations
Government continues to harass journalists. 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 commentary 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 could decide to withdraw accreditation from journalists whose reporting upsets it.
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 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.”
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.
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.
The new Swazi constitution has left King Mswati III in overall control of the kingdom and the media are harassed if they try to publish anything critical of him.
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 which blamed the king for many of the kingdom’s economic ills.
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.
People in prominent positions, including Parliamentarians, continue to use the law courts as a way to harass journalists. Often, after the initial threat, no court case actually takes place. However, the threat of action is often enough to quieten troublesome journalists. In 2007 the Times of Swaziland had one lawsuit from the Minister of Education dismissed by the High Court on a technicality only to be sued by the Minister of Health and Social Welfare over an article about HIV/AIDS.
The Swazi Observer was sued by an MP over a report of an alleged assault. What is common to all the defamation cases is the unrealistically high damages that are claimed.
Access to Information
Information continues to be restricted in Swaziland, although in 2007 a draft Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill was published as one of seven new media-related bills.
The Times of Swaziland drew a blank in October 2007 when it tried to discover the cost of a trip funded by the Swazi taxpayer the Swaziland Prime Minister and his wife had made to the Bahamas in the Caribbean. The Times was told that the information was ‘classified’. The Times has also been trying without success to get information about how government tenders are awarded. It is estimated that about 40 million Rand is lost each month to corruption in Swaziland.
The Swazi government is keen to give the impression that it is committed to reforming the 30-plus restrictive media laws that currently exist 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.
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. This deadline has already been missed by seven years which tells the truth about the government’s commitment.
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 media environment in Swaziland remains static. The media market is small with broadcasting dominated by the government. There are two newspaper publishers. The African Echo group owns the Times of Swaziland and its companion newspapers. Tibiyo TakaNgwane, a conglomerate effectively controlled by the Swazi Royal family, owns the rest. There is one independently owned national magazine. Circulation figures for newspapers are not publicly available but it is estimated that the Times of Swaziland sells about 35 000 copies per day and the Swazi Observer between 5 000 and 15 000 per day.
Media fraternity remains weak in Swaziland. The Swaziland National Association of Journalists is not well respected (even by its members) and its main contribution to Swazi journalism, its code of ethical conduct, remains largely ignored.
The new trade union Media Workers Union of Swaziland made some headway but its membership split over the conduct of a proposed strike at the Times group of newspapers. By the end of the year it was difficult to see whether this union would be able to establish itself as a credible force in the kingdom.
MISA and other NGOs continued to hold workshops to help develop the skills and knowledge of working journalists, but there remains a general lack of commitment by media houses to training,
There was no significant change in the media environment in 2007. The constitution which on paper allows freedom of speech and freedom of the media has made no appreciable impact. This has not stopped some media practitioners and media freedom advocates from continuing to challenge ruling elites, but the sad truth is that in Swaziland traditional authorities effectively rule and there is no indication that they want to give up their powers by granting freedom to anyone, the media included.