18 April 2013
The Southern African Editors’ Forum (SAEF) has condemned a possible two-year jail term or US$20,000 fine imposed on Bheki Makhubu, an editor, by the courts in Swaziland.
Makhubu edits one of Swaziland’s few independent sources of news, The Nation magazine, published by Swaziland Independent Publishers. The magazine was found guilty of “contempt by scandalizing the court” following its publication of two articles in 2009 and 2010 that criticised Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.
On Wednesday, 17 April 2013, The Nation was ordered by Judge Bheki Maphalala to pay Emlangeni E200,000 (approximately US$20,000) within three days. If payment is not made, and an appeal by the magazine is dismissed, Makhubu will face two years in jail.
“The action against Makhubu is not only a violation of his own rights and media freedom. This is an act designed to intimidate the media in Swaziland and discourage them from being critical,” reads part of a statement released by SAEF and signed by its chairperson, Jovial Rantao.
The statement (attached) further states: “As a member of the African Union and Southern African Development Community, Swaziland should honour and respect the existing conventions and protocols on freedom of expression.
“Makhubu did not commit any crime and should not have been in court in the first place. We call for the conviction and sentence against Makhubu to be set aside to allow him to carry on with his work without fear of arrest.”
According to a High Court of Swaziland judgment sheet dated 17 April 2013, under the title Criminal case no: 53/2010, Judge Bheki Maphalala said that “failing payment of the fine of E200,000 (Two hundred thousand Emalangeni) within three days of this Order, in respect of both respondents, the second respondent [Bheki Makhubu] will be committed to prison forthwith for a period of two years”.
Secretary-General of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum, Jabu Matsebula, said he was “shocked” at the ruling against The Nation, adding that it is one of the heaviest fines ever handed down in the kingdom.
“It will certainly have a chilling effect on the press and on citizens constitutional rights to freedom of expression,” he said.
The summary of Justice Maphalala’s ruling mentions the “right to freedom of expression and opinion” and says “judges and courts are open to criticism provided that the criticism is fair and legitimate and does not exceed accepted boundaries”. In this case, however, the judge told The Nation it was “guilty of contempt by scandalizing the court”.
Meanwhile, The Nation has since instructed its lawyer to lodge a speedy appeal in the Supreme Court.
MISA continues to follow this development in Swaziland and will be issuing updates.
For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director