We should be sceptical of a report that the Swaziland Government is about to privatise all state-controlled broadcasting in the kingdom and open up the presently-restricted airways to the people.
This promise has been made on and off for the past twenty years. Now, Dumisani Ndlangamandla, Minister of Information Communication and Technology, has reportedly said a new entity called the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) will be formed, possibly by the end of 2015.
The Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in Swaziland, reported, ‘Ndlangamandla said it was expected that the operation would provide maximum availability of broadcasting to the people through the three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasting services.’
The newspaper reported SBC would provide public, commercial and community radio or television services.
It is unlikely that any new broadcasting entity, if it is ever created, will be any different to the present situation where nearly all broadcasting in Swaziland is state-controlled.
Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati III, who is sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Political parties are banned from contesting elections and the King picks the government.
At present Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service (SBIS) oversees state radio stations. The only independent radio is Voice of the Church, a Christian station that does not carry news.
There are only two TV stations in the kingdom, the state-controlled Swazi TV and the independent Channel S, which has a publicly-stated policy of supporting King Mswati.
Despite many promises in the past the Government still does not allow community radio to operate in the kingdom.
Most people in Swaziland get their news and information from radio. Newspapers hardly penetrate rural areas where more than 70 percent of the population lives and television is too expensive for most people.
Under this situation, currently broadcasters in Swaziland serve the interests of the ruling elites and not those of the people. Broadcasting is state-controlled, that means no criticism is allowed on the airwaves of the status quo in Swaziland. Any criticism of the ruling elite is seen as ‘non-Swazi’. The Prime Minister is editor-in-chief of the Swazi broadcasting and can decide what goes on the air and what does not.
As recently as August 2012, the Swazi Government issued guidelines for state broadcasters that barred all coverage of events, ‘except those authorised by relevant authorities’.
The guidelines also prohibited ‘public service announcements’ unless they were ‘in line with government policy’ or had been authorised ‘by the chiefs through the regional administrators’ or deputy prime minister’s office.
There is a long history of censorship on SBIS. Strikes and anti-government demonstrations are usually ignored by the radio. Sometimes live programmes are censored on air. In July 2011, the plug was pulled on a phone-in programme when listeners started criticising the government for its handling of the economy. Percy Simelane, who was then the boss of SBIS, and is now the Government’s official spokesperson, personally stormed the radio studio and cut the programme.
In April 1 2011, Welile Dlamini, a long-time news editor at SBIS, challenged Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini at an editors’ forum meeting on why the state radio station was told by the Government what and what not to broadcast. Dlamini said that at the station they were instructed to spike certain stories such as those about demonstrations by progressives and strike action by workers. The PM responded by saying editors should resign if they were not happy with the editorial policies they were expected to work with.
In March 2011, SBIS stopped broadcasting the BBC World Service Focus on Africa programme after it carried reports critical of King Mswati III. In the same month, SBIS failed to cover the march by nurses that forced the Swazi Government into paying them overdue allowances.
In 2010, Swazi police told SBIS it must stop allowing people to broadcast information about future meetings unless the police had given permission. Jerome Dlamini, Deputy Director of SBIS, said this was to stop the radio station airing an announcement for a meeting that was prohibited.
He said, ‘It’s the station’s policy not to make announcements without police permission.’ The police directive came to light when the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) tried to get an announcement aired about one of its meetings.
In 2006, the Minister for Public Service and Information, Themba Msibi, warned the Swazi broadcasters against criticising the King.
MISA reported at the time, ‘The minister’s threats followed a live radio programme of news and current affairs in which a human rights lawyer criticised the King’s sweeping constitutional powers.’
Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, had been asked to comment on a visit by an African Union (AU) human rights team which was on a fact-finding mission to Swaziland.
‘In response, Maseko said that, as human rights activists, they had concerns about the king’s sweeping constitutional powers and the fact that he the King was wrongfully placed above the Constitution. He said they were going to bring this and other human rights violations to the attention of the AU delegation.
‘Not pleased with the broadcast, the government was quick to respond. Msibi spoke on air the following day to sternly warn the media against criticising the King. He said the media should exercise respect and avoid issues that seek to question the king or his powers.
‘The minister said his message was not directed only to radio but to all media, both private and government-owned. He said that in government they had noticed that there was growing trend in the media to criticise the King when he should be above criticism and public scrutiny,’ MISA reported.