Analysis / Media Alert

Broadcasting legislation enters Swazi parliament – good news or bad?

MISA-Swaziland Analysis
7 March 2013

Minister of information, communication and technology, Winnie Magagula, tabled the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill 2013 and the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill 2013 in the Senate on Wednesday 6 March.

The Bills are now expected be discussed by parliamentary committees who, it is understood, will seek consultation from anyone interested in the future of Swaziland television and radio.

The Swaziland Broadcasting Bill has five objectives. Notably, the Bill provides “for freedom of expression through broadcasting”. It also aims to regulate “sound and television” services and “provide for the maximum availability of broadcasting to the people through the three tier systems of public, commercial and community broadcasting services”. The Bill also aims to contribute to the “socio-economic development of society” and “nation building”, while “strengthening the spiritual and moral fibre” of the country.

The Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) welcomes any move to liberalise the broadcasting sector. We also welcome any opportunity to engage with the minister of information, communication and technology on matters of broadcasting and media freedom. On the face of it, the Broadcasting Bill is an encouraging sign. However, on further consideration MISA would call for clarification on several points.

We ask how the broadcaster will strengthen the “spiritual and moral fibre” of the nation? We call for a precise definition of “spiritual and moral fibre” because the Bill is silent its meaning.

MISA is concerned that the “spiritual and moral firbe” objective might in reality clash with the “freedom of expression through broadcasting” objective. In other words, MISA is concerned that “spiritual and moral fibre” may be used to suppress legitimate questioning and criticism of the nation’s rich and powerful.

We call for either the removal of the “spiritual and moral fibre” objective, or, alternatively, we call for a precise definition that runs in spirit with universal notions of freedom of expression, namely, that all citizens are free to speak their mind on all forms of broadcasting.

Further, MISA requires clarification in regard to Part III, 27 (1)(a) of the Broadcasting Bill, under “Programming, Scheduling and Advertising”. The Bill here stipulates any organisation that holds a broadcasting license must broadcast “nothing… that shall offend against good taste, morality or decency or is likely to encourage or incite crime or lead to disorder, or be offensive to public feeling, repugnant, or conducted in bad faith”.

MISA calls on the minister to define the following terms: “good taste”; “morality”; “decency”; “likely to incite crime or lead to disorder”; offensive to public feeling”; “repugnant”; and “conducted in bad faith”.

These are loaded words and terms with various meanings. They could be used in the name of media freedom just as much as they might be deployed in the name of repression and censorship. In the name of legal accountability, therefore, MISA calls on the government to define these words and terms in a manner consistent with Articles 23, 24, and 25 of the Swazi Constitution.

Article 23 provides for “protection of conscience or religion”. Article 24 provides for “protection of freedom of expression”, including “freedom of the press and other media”. And Article 25 offers protection of “freedom of assembly and association”.

Furthermore, in regard to the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill 2013, MISA calls for clarification on Part VII (43), under the heading “General”. This Article is titled “Powers of the King in a public emergency”.

In part, it reads: “Where there is in force a proclamation of a state of public emergency or threatened public emergency under the Constitution, the King may make an order authorising any officer of any authority to – (a) take over all broadcasting stations or any particular broadcasting station in Swaziland; and (b) control and direct all broadcasting services from the broadcasting stations or broadcasting station to which the provisions of paragraph (a) relate for so long as the King considers it expedient.”

MISA is unsettled at the extent to which this Article gives the king absolute power to take over all broadcasting in the nation. Common sense would acknowledge that in the event of a national disaster or violent conflict, the trusted political leaders should have easier access to some broadcasting media. But to give one person the opportunity to take unfettered control over all broadcast media seems somewhat extreme and, it might be said, counter-productive.

MISA calls for a clear definition of ‘public emergency’ and ‘threatened public emergency’; according to the Bill it is not clear what these terms mean. There is a fear that these terms, and this Article, could be used to further entrench the control already wielded by the state-owned and controlled broadcasters. Dictators in other parts of the world have used similar legal provisions to abuse power and take over the media.

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, a well-known figure in Latin America, has tightened his grip on the media using a similar provision to the one outlined in the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill. The Economist, a London-based news and international affairs magazine, had this to say about Correa’s authoritarian tendencies in its February 9, 2013 edition.

“The president is intolerant of criticism. He has built a powerful government media empire, including two television networks seized from corrupt bankers. Like [the late Venezuelan leader] Mr Chávez and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández, he has abused a provision, intended for national emergencies, in which all television and radio stations are required to carry his broadcasts – no fewer than 1,365 of them between January 2007 and August 2012, according to Fundamedios, a media body. Freedom of expression is a “function of the state”, he claims. He has pursued criminal libel cases against critics, and is pushing to curb the powers of the media-freedom watchdog of the Organisation of American States.”

MISA suggests Swaziland’s leaders and legislators refrain from following the same dubious path as these Latin American countries.

The other Bill tabled in Swaziland’s Senate on 6 March 2013 is the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill.

On initial inspection the Corporation Bill intends to establish a body not dissimilar to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) – an organisation to emerge from the ashes of Apartheid South Africa’s and racist state broadcaster.

The SABC, which is called a ‘public broadcaster’ and in many ways is a public broadcaster, is still grappling today (19 years after the fall of Apartheid) with its role as a national broadcaster that should disseminate information in the public interest. Rarely a week goes by without allegations of state censorship or ‘shelving’ of inconvenient stories, or accusations of ‘orders from on high’ disallowing criticism of certain people or certain organisations.

This is said to illustrate the challenges ahead for Swaziland: converting the currently state-controlled broadcasters into a public broadcaster that serves and reflects the interests of the people is no easy task. It is, however, an achievable task.

In considering the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill, MISA calls on the minister to further define “public broadcaster” and “public broadcasting service”. As it stands, the Bill loosely defines “public broadcasting service” and there is seemingly no definition for “public broadcaster” or for “national public broadcaster”. There is time, though, for the minister to seek consultation, so before any vote a clearer Bill can be produced that will truly serve the public.

MISA-Swaziland is a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech and assists journalists to carry out their work.

For more information contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director
misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

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