The following report was presented by MISA-Swaziland National Governing Council Chairman Alec Lushaba at the Annual General Meeting, held at the Swaziland Theatre Club on Saturday 13 July, 2013.
Colleagues and friends it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to our second Annual General Meeting here at the Mbabane Theatre Club.
This year, being the country’s election year, the MISA NGC decided to combine our AGM with a symposium that looks at Media and Elections in Swaziland.
I am sure this will give us an opportunity to find our space as freedom of expression advocates and media practitioners to scan the environment and see how it affects us.
Further, the NGC resolved that such a discussion cannot be limited to just our members only, but one that we need to share with like-minded colleagues in the civil society movement and also interested friends.
So without further ado, let me on behalf of the MISA NGC and entire MISA family welcome you to our AGM and Media and Elections in Swaziland Symposium.
After a tough start to the year, I am happy to report to the MISA family today that things are slowly taking shape and our organisation is going back to the one we used to know and passionate about.
A lot has happened during the transition period and it has not been smooth sailing both operationally and organisationally.
Operationally, we are happy to welcome our new National Director Mr Vuyisile Hlatshwayo to his first MISA AGM taking over from our long serving member and ND Mr Comfort Mabuza.
Mr Mabuza had served the organisation for over a decade and has created a strong MISA Swaziland brand. His contribution has made MISA to be the household name it is today and we appreciate his contribution to the advocacy of media freedom and freedom of expression in the country.
Being MISA ND means taking risks, not only to his person but exposed his family as well to the unpalatable comments and reaction that follow advocates like him.
We looked to Mr Mabuza to show us the way and we thanked him most graciously for the role he played.
His era finished in the first half of the year and after a thorough process of seeking his successor we appointed Mr VuyisileHlatshwayo, a veteran journalist, educator and MISA person.
He has a mammoth task of re-establishing the organisation and as the NGC we are quite happy with the strides he has made thus far and I am sure many of you will concur with us today that our new National Director has so far continued with the legacy of maintaining a vibrant organisation.
He has really warmed up to his new surroundings and we are sure with him at the helm, he would steer us to greater heights, at least in the period he will be with us.
Organisationally, we experienced another tough year in terms of resources and staffing. When Mr Hlatshwayo joined the organisation we were truly depleted. Only the Finance and Administration officer, Ms Lomalanga Nxumalo was in office, supported by an intern. We are truly grateful to her that despite the weaknesses in our ND’s office due to ill-health, he worked tirelessly in supporting the NGC and the RGC to keep the MISA Swaziland Chapter afloat.
We are indeed grateful to her and really appreciated everything she has done for MISA.
Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn once said: “A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot empower (enfranchise) poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build up the public consensus needed to bring about change.”
Eight years into our national Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression and media, we can hardly report of any positive developments that have had a meaningful impact in our media space.
The media space is still dominated by the same players in print and broadcasting. The only new entry has been an Agri-business magazine, which only addresses a special audience.
At the same breathe we can say a lot about the infringements to freedom of expression and the media that we have observed in the past year.
The three seats of power – government, big business and media owners – continue to violate the constitutional rights of citizens to freedom of expression.
In total defiance to the Kingdom’s supreme law, they maintain a stranglehold on the media. On top of the 32 media restrictive laws, plus the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008, the government has invoked the Public Service Announcement Guidelines (PAS) to further suppress dissenting voices in the state broadcast media.
What is sad is that even those people who have the power and capacity to change our environment, the MPs, have been subjected to the same treatment of being silenced and have done nothing to correct this problem which violates people’s rights and the guarantees promised in the constitution.
Three Bills which we thought were going to change our media landscape; Communications Bill, Broadcasting Bill and Access to Information Bill, remained just that – Bills in the period under review. These Bills have been sitting with Parliament since 2010. It has only been now in 2013 that government has passed the Communications Bill, but again it still needs Royal Ascent.
It is in the same year that the Attorney General Majeh’enkhabaDlamini, acting on instruction from the Chief Justice, opened a case of contempt of court against The Nation magazine after running a story calling on judges to inject a dose of judicial activism into the justice system.
The Attorney General, however, revealed that Swaziland is not yet ready for true democracy, and it is the prerogative of the Executive (and therefore not the judiciary) to entrench a culture that respects the legal system.
The Swazi Observer newspaper purged its Chief Editor who dared to give column space to several progressive groups and albeit balancing them with traditional voices.
He was soon to be followed by two editors’ Thulani Thwala, Alec Lushaba and company Finance and Administration manager Andreas Nkabinde who were put on ice for a period of eight months, without charges being preferred on them for a quasi-failure to adhere to the newspaper original mandate.
These cases coming from the Managing Director instilled fear in the newsroom and threatened freedom of expression and media. We are however grateful to the new Swazi Observer Board of Directors for reversing the decision of their MD and committing to allow editorial independence.
Whilst we have appreciated the return of veteran journalist Martin Dlamini to head the Times Group of Newspaper, after initially losing him for about three years to government, we at MISA are not quite happy with his close working relationship with the Office of the King.
As the only an independent newspaper, we fear that this close relationship may compromise the newspaper’s independence, thereby failing the marginalised society.
We are always worried as an organisation when newspaper owners increasingly try to ingratiate themselves with the ruling elite.
Left in this exposed state, the print media is easily manipulated by the ruling elite. Interference, censorship, assault, harassment and intimidation are all common. In short, Swazi citizens are being denied their right to freedom of expression and information, thanks largely to a subtle and deceptive interaction between government, business and media owners.
GRANT FROM OSISA
Whilst regionally, MISA funding declined sharply in the year under review, Swaziland was lucky to have secured a programme funding from OSISA, which the ND will elaborate at length about in his report.
The funding from OSISA together with the reduced MISA Regional funding is what has made our chapter to be back on its feet, otherwise without it we would be struggling to make ends meet.
The effect of the OSISA grant is yet to be explored, but we appreciate the support and it is going to help us a great deal going forward as it also seeks to strengthen journalists and media organisations.
Further, given the full functioning office of the ND and the MISA office we were able to also attract funding from other sources like the United States Embassy and also from UNESCO. We have done some work with civil society organisations, media houses and schools, for which we have been grateful to our sponsors and our partners as well.
After announcing in our last AGM that we moved offices from Dlanubeka Building to Dalrich North, we are happy to announce that we are back in the Central Business district (CBD) and our offices are now accessible by foot to any of our members and partners.
We are happy that despite the escalating rental costs, we have managed to have found suitable space, which despite not being spacious but suitable for our daily work, we have managed to accommodate both the MCC and the Press Club.
This is a critical area of our institution. For any organisation to be effective, it needs robust and effective members. Without a strong membership, we are like the many media orgnisations doomed. It is my duty as I hereby do, invite you to take seriously your membership with us.
Whilst we encourage individual membership, we are keen to promote organisational membership, as we strongly believe that unless we have strong associations and coalitions, alone as media people we can struggle to have a strong voice.
I therefore encourage organisations defunct or active like SNAJ, Editors’ Forum, Press Club and FAWESWA, and the MWUS to affiliate with us and further explore and strengthen our areas of cooperation.
At MISA we are not at competition with any of the existing or defunct associations, it is in our interest to see these bodies functional, so that the voice of freedom of expression advocates can be strengthened.
In closing let me re-emphasise these statement: In any given country, the media sector ideally performs a number of roles. It provides accurate news and information to the public.
It facilitates public debate and discussion on a wide range of issues, and sometimes sets the agenda for such debate. It holds powerful state and non-state interests accountable, serving as a watchdog for the public interest. In essence, an independent media sector is a key factor in good governance.
Yet getting to that ideal state is far from easy. Financial sustainability is extremely difficult for many media outlets, as is editorial independence from government, the private sector, and other powerful interests.
Restrictive laws and regulations stifle the development of the media. Access to informationand the skills to create content are often lacking. There is however a clear need to support independent and pluralistic media around the world, particularly here in Swaziland.
If the constitution is to work, it needs a strong, independent and pluralistic media. A pluralistic, sustainable, editorially independent media sector is a cornerstone of good governance and long-term development.
The media can act as a sounding board for government policies, an avenue for citizen participation, a national and local town hall, a force for accountability, and a bulwark against abuse of power.
Without the media, it is difficult for citizens to raise and discuss issues of development that affect their lives. In whatever the form, the media have the potential to contribute to an informed, empowered citizenry and to foster responsive, legitimate, and effective government.