Media Alert / Statement

Statement on World Press Freedom Day: Swaziland Editors Forum

Statement issued by Swaziland Editors Forum
3 May 2013

Swaziland today joins the international community in commemorating World Press Freedom Day (WPFD)

The theme: “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”, immediately reminds us of the trial of our colleague Bheki Makhubu, Editor of the Nation Magazine who the High Court convicted of scandalizing the judiciary and sentenced him to an unprecedented fine of E400,000 or go to jail because he published articles critical of the judiciary. It is sad to say that this incident which sent waves of anger across the world will have a chilling effect on the press and on freedom of expression. We do not believe that criticism of the judiciary should be a crime. We believe the public should respect and hold the judiciary in esteem for their dignity that inspires confidence – not because the courts are centres of fear. We are still shocked that the judiciary – a public institution should find it necessary to protect itself with fear.

For the record, Makhubu is a member of our Forum, and the Editors of Swaziland stand beside him at this most challenging time.

WPFD is an opportunity for public education on the concept of Press Freedom which is greatly misunderstood. Press Freedom seems to suggest a self appointed right of journalists to do as they please. Nothing could be further from the truth. Journalists are public (not civil) servants. Almost everyone relies on the media to learn about news and hear various perspectives of opinion and debates. The media therefore has a central role in advancing freedom of information and freedom of expression. Journalists work in the public space to fulfil a public need to share information. They are there to serve the public interest.

Press freedom is the right of the public (not the press) to access information without restrictions. This definition of Press Freedom is consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

A similar declaration is found in our constitution under Article 24 (2) which says that “a person shall not except with the free consent of that person be hindered in the enjoyment of the freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press and other media.”

Because they are the public watchdog, journalists have a duty to expose information and highlight incidents that powerful people and institutions wish concealed at all costs. Governments often dislike influential voices that provide alternative solutions and often use laws and censorship regulations to restrain, limit or control the media.

It is not uncommon for the authorities to impose fines so onerous that the only objective can clearly be an intention to close them down. We hope that is not the objective of the severe financial penalties against the Nation Magazine.

However journalists are human. Sometimes they too are at fault and present inaccurate information and perspectives that result in the injury of people’s names and reputations.  As responsible citizens, Journalists recognize the constitutional right of other citizens to dignity and respect in line with Section 63 under the Directive Principles of State Policy which calls for “respect for the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of others, and generally to refrain from doing acts detrimental to the welfare of other persons.”

For many years, the public has expressed the legitimate complaint that the media acted as though a law unto itself, and was not bound by any rules or regulation. But that has changed: Since the 1st April 2013, the media established the Media Complaints Commission (MCC) as a self regulatory mechanism to enforce compliance by journalists, of a professional code of ethics. The code compel journalists to be honest, tell the truth and work only in the public interest.

The press in Swaziland believes self-regulation involving exclusively representatives of the press and representatives of civil society as the only way of protecting, promoting and exercising our constitutional guarantees and rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Any other form of regulation would threaten the rights of the public to freely access information and exercise their freedom of expression.

World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to urge the public to claim their rights secured under MCC to access impartial, expeditious and cost-effective dispute resolution. The mechanism is based on two pillars. One the one hand, it is a commitment to freedom of the press and on the other, to excellence in journalistic practice and ethics.

The Press in Swaziland has adopted the Swaziland Journalists Code of Ethics. The code provides a guide for journalists on their daily practice of gathering and distributing news and opinion. The same code will be used to guide the MCC and help them reach decisions on complaints against journalists accused of violating ethics.

Issued by Jabu Matsebula
Secretary General, Swaziland Editors Forum

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