Swaziland’s illegally-appointed Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini met editors and senior journalists last week at what is promised to be a regular monthly ‘editors’ forum’ meeting.
The forum is billed as an opportunity for journalists to question the Prime Minister (and any other senior politicians he chooses to invite along). To some people this ‘openness’ demonstrates how much he believes in freedom of speech and freedom of the media.
The forum is not a new idea; the most recent Prime Minister Themba Dlamini also held such meetings. There was some doubt about whether Barnabas Dlamini would carry on with the ‘tradition’ because he has a well-deserved reputation as a hater of freedoms, including freedom of the press and freedom of association. Since he came to power in October 2008, Barnabas Dlamini has branded four political formations as terrorists and announced that anyone who is a member or supporter of the organisations will be deemed a terrorist. Under the Suppression of Terrorism Act, this could result in up to 25 years in jail.
I suppose Barnabas had nothing to worry about meeting the journalists. At his final editors’ forum meeting in July 2008, Themba Dlamini praised the editors for all the support they had given him and his government over the previous five years.
The forum is billed as an opportunity for the media to question the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues on matters of interest to the nation, but in his speech the PM was very open about the fact that he would only answer the questions that he wanted to.
He told the editors, ‘You will recall that the initial breakfast meetings were very difficult and tense even though I had given you the rules of engagement.
‘I think you will remember rule number one, which says, “I am not under any obligation to answer all your questions and I reserve the right to refuse to answer any question” This has been the rule of thumb for our breakfast meetings and I am happy that we have kept it alive throughout our sessions; and our interaction has matured over time.’
This, of course, doesn’t represent an open dialogue. A real interaction would only take place when the Prime Minister and senior politicians were forced to answer questions they did NOT want to answer.
In view of the recent controversy surrounding Mfomfo Nkhambule, who was threatened with jail for the articles he has written in the Times of Swaziland, it is instructive to note that in his speech Themba Dlamini told editors, 'I am glad that in Swaziland people have constitutional rights to express themselves freely I am also happy that there is no one that has been reprimanded because of expressing himself or herself through the media or any other medium.’
Following Barnabas Dlamini’s first editors’ forum, the civil society group Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO) wrote a media release critiquing the Prime Minister’s contribution.
It covered the PM’s views on the Swaziland Constitution, the controversial constitutional commitment to free primary school education, the attempts at influencing the press and the diplomatic corps, the government’s disregard for ‘International Human Rights Norms’ and the use of performance incentives for cabinet ministers.
The release did not get widespread coverage, so I have posted it on the blog here.