Analysis / Media Alert

Swaziland still struggling with press freedom – Reporters Without Borders

MISA-Swaziland Analysis
6 January 2013

Swaziland has placed 155th on the Reporters Without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index, dropping 11 spots since last year.

Reporters Without Borders, a global media watchdog, labeled the small sub-Saharan kingdom as one of “Africa’s predatory censors”. Also earning this tag was Gambia (152on the index), Rwanda (161), Equatorial Guinea (166), Djibouti (167), and Eritrea, which finds itself in last position (179) for the sixth consecutive year.

In all of these countries “media pluralism has been whittled away and criticism of the head of state discouraged,” according to a RWB report released with the index on 29 January 2013.

According to the report King Mswati III of Swaziland – in similar fashion to leaders in the other “predatory” states – keeps an “iron grasp” on his country and a “firm grip on news and information”.

Swaziland, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique in southeastern Africa, is one spot behind Turkey (154th), the Middle Eastern country described as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”.

One rung below Swaziland on the press index is Azerbaijan (156th), a country of 8 million people in southwestern Asia. Azerbaijan moved up six places simply because in the past year authorities used less violence to suppress opposition voices. “[T]his year [Azerbaijan] just moved back to their appalling former position.”

As for South Africa, Swaziland’s wage-earning older brother next door, RWB notes a steady decline in recent years.

The land of the springbok is now ranked 52nd, slipping ten places from last year. Despite a much greater degree of freedom of information in South Africa, compared to Swaziland, it has for the first time dropped out of the top 50 for press freedom (since the index was first compiled in 2002). The report cites South Africa’s proposed Protection of State Information Bill, otherwise known as the Secrecy Bill, as a threat to that country’s freedom of information.

Things could be worse

The east-African dictatorship Eritrea (179) – where at least 30 journalists are known to be in prison – nudged out North Korea (178) and Turkmenistan (177) to take home its sixth consecutive gong for Worst Performing Press Freedom Country.

Reporters Without Borders describes Eritrea as a “vast open prison for its people” where journalists are left to rot in jail.

“Of the 11 [journalists] incarcerated [in Eritrea] since 2001, 7 have died as a result of prison conditions or have killed themselves,” said RWB.

To the west of Eritrea is Tanzania, which dropped 36 places on the press freedom index – owing to the murder of a journalist and the suspicious death of another in the past year; as well as the government’s refusal to fully open up the newspaper market.

Mali, currently in the grip of a civil war, plummeted 74 places. Somalia continued its downward trend, falling 11 places and now rests uneasily in 175th place – the second-worst African country for press freedom behind Eritrea. Eighteen journalists were killed in Somalia in 2012. Many perished in bomb attacks; others were flatly murdered. It was the deadliest year on record for journalists in the Horn of Africa country.

Other notable mentions in the worst performing category for African media freedom in 2012 were: Cameroon dropped 23 to 120; Lesotho fell 18 places to 81; Guinea-Bissau fell 17 spots to 92; Zimbabwe fell 16 places to 133; South Sudan dropped 13 places to 124; Mozambique fell 7 places to 73; and Sudan remained near the bottom at 170.

Where might Swaziland look for inspiration on press freedom?

According to Reporters Without Borders, Namibia would be a good place to start. The southern African country moved up one place is now ranked 19th on the index – the highest African country.

The BBC website says the Namibian “constitution provides for press freedom and on the whole this is respected by the government… Broadcasters and the private press give coverage to the opposition, including views critical of the government.”

Furthermore, according to the BBC, Namibia has more than 20 private and community radio stations.

Another African country to draw inspiration from is Cape Verde, ranked 25th on the press freedom index. Despite dropping 16 places in 2012, Cape Verde – made up of a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal – does a good job of protecting press freedom by law. “Much of the media is state-run but there is an active private press and a growing number of broadcasters,” says the BBC.

Malawi, to the north of Swaziland, recorded the biggest jump in the press freedom index. It shot up 71 places and is now ranked in 75th spot, close to its 2010 position. The country’s rise can be attributed to the settling of tensions after the political turmoil under the rule of late president Bingu Wa Mutharika. Reporters Without Borders also rewarded west-African country Côte d’Ivoire by moving it up 63 places, now ranked 96th. Though RWB did mention “persistent problems” and the BBC notes the tendency for authorities to abuse their power by turning the press into a vehicle for propaganda.

Côte d’Ivoire’s west-African neighbour, Ghana, maintained its recent strong showing on press freedom. It moved up 11 places to the now healthy ranking of 30. The BBC says Ghana “enjoys a high degree of media freedom and the private press and broadcasters operate without significant restrictions”.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland), a media monitoring NGO that promotes freedom of speech, applauds these African nations that are making progress on press freedom. MISA-Swaziland takes heart from their continued efforts in pressuring public bodies release public information and their renewed call to free citizens’ minds from the yoke of censorship and suppression.

In compiling its index Reporters Without Borders takes into account ‘press freedom measures’ such as how easy or difficult it is to access information and how safe the media environment is for journalists.

“The press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary general Christophe Deloire.

To read the full RWB report click here

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