6 May 2013
On a sunny May 3, World Press Freedom Day, journalists and civil society members marched through the streets of Swaziland’s capital, Mbabane, and delivered a petition to the Minister of Information, Communication, and Technology and Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. The marchers were calling for media freedom.
About 40 silent protesters with white sticky tape stuck across their lips, were sending a message to Swaziland’s leaders: they are not free to speak their minds. The tape across the mouth was a clear signal that censorship and self-censorship in the southern African country are rife.
Members of the public were clearly interested in what was happening, several workers put down their tools to gaze upon the silent walkers.
A banner held at the front of the marchers read: “World Press Freedom Day: Safe to Speak, Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media.”
Several protesters were holding placards. “Allow more newspapers!” “Suffocate debate and we all lose.” “Speaking is not criminal.”
Swaziland’s Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) played a central role in organising the march.
The Swazi News on Saturday 4 May reported MISA-Swaziland national director, Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, as saying he was “happy that media practitioners made their voices heard”.
Hlatshwayo went on to say MISA-Swaziland will continue to “fight for the creation of an open society where journalists can freely practise their trade without any hindrances”.
Chairman of MISA-Swaziland Alec Lushaba delivered the petition to the principal secretary of ICT Bheki Gama, who received it on behalf of minister Winnie Magagula.
Lushaba also delivered the petition to ministry of justice under-secretary Siboniso Masilela, who received it on behalf of minster Mgwagwa Gamedze.
The petition, written by MISA-Swaziland and supported by many civil society groups and citizens, calls for the removal of all legislation that restricts media freedom. It also urges government to ensure the Broadcasting Bill 2013, currently before parliament, “provides for the maximum availability of broadcasting to the people by permitting for public, commercial and community broadcasting”.
Other points in the petition call for more support for journalism students; more assistance and encouragement for editors and journalists to overcome self-censorship; and for journalists and citizens alike to expose more cases of censorship.
MISA-Swaziland defines self-censorship as the act of stopping oneself from reporting on something they know to be in the public interest; and censorship is where information and stories are not allowed to print because they are inconvenient, even if that story or information is true.
The march came hot on the heels the controversial sentence handed down to Swazi editor Bheki Makhubu, who was recently ordered by the high court to pay E200,000 ($US21,000) within three days or else go to jail for two years.
Makhubu, editor of monthly magazine The Nation, wrote two articles that were critical of the judiciary in 2009 and 2010.
These articles, said high court judge Bheki Maphalala, “scandalised the courts”.
The prominent editor appealed the decision – staying all court proceedings – and will likely hear more from the courts in November 2013.
The sentence against Makhubu has sent shock waves through Swaziland’s media fraternity, with many commentators and international human rights organisations condemning the judge’s decision.
During the evening of May 3, after the march, MISA-Swaziland hosted a public debate at the Mbabane Theatre Club. Seventy people came along to hear a free-flowing discussion about the lack of media freedom in Swaziland.
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director