Media not free in Swaziland, says human rights researcher

MISA-Swaziland e-Forum article

charlotte winberg centre for human rights pretoria

Charlotte Winberg, a Masters student at University of Pretoria’s Human Rights Centre, spent a week in Swaziland in April 2013. She spoke with a range of people and organisations, including the Media Institute of Southern Africa, about media freedom and human rights. Below are her observations 

Despite freedom of expression being ensured in Swaziland’s 2005 Constitution, there are still more than 30 laws contravening the right to hold and express an opinion. Some of the conflicting laws date back the early or mid-1900s, while others date further back to the late-1800s.

An example of the latter is the Cape Libel Act of 1882, which criminalizes defamation. Another is the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1938, deeming any speech or publication seditious if the intent is to bring “the King, his heirs, successors, or government into contempt or encourage hatred of them”.

The right to freedom of expression, as set out in the Constitution, also includes freedom of the press and the media to hold and express an opinion without interruption. The reality, however, is a media that has the potential and the de jure right to function freely, but is limited by government and the head of state; in addition, of course, to being curtailed by the many contravening laws.

It goes without saying that these impediments to a free media make it difficult  for editors and reporters to carry out their everyday work. Owing to these challenges, it is the people of Swaziland who ultimately suffer the most.

Freedom of expression is not just an individual right. On the other side of the coin the state has an obligation to ensure that there is accurate information accessible to the people.

This, the freedom to express oneself without fear of persecution, is usually defended in a country by the media. For this to happen, though, the state must see to it that the media can function freely and independently; otherwise journalists cannot fulfil their obligation to tell the truth and report on critical events. And if the media is not telling the truth, who will?

Stories about ‘sensitive issues’ in Swaziland are generally reported by media houses outside the country. These stories, therefore, are usually brought to the attention of Swazis via outside media or by electronic media. The problem, however, is this information does not always reach all Swazis.

This vicious cycle — whereby government relies on outdated laws, ensuring the media cannot function freely — means the journalists cannot bring accurate information to the people of Swaziland. This cycle is not a secret: though the media might not write about it, it is still there, visible for everyone who takes a critical or questioning view.

Instead of finding someone to blame, I am interested to see who breaks the cycle first. A good way to start might be amending or getting rid of the contravening acts. The only problem, though, is I can think of only one person in Swaziland who has the authority to do so.

Charlotte Winberg is an exchange student from Åbo Akademi University, Finland. She is completing her first semester of an LLM/MPhil in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa programme at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights in South Africa.



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