September 30 2013
Police beat up protesters and an officer pointed a gun at a journalist on Saturday 28 September in Gege, a southern town in Swaziland near the Bothashoop border-crossing towards Piet Retief in South Africa.
According to the Times of Swaziland, one of its photojournalists Walter Dlamini, was doing his job — photographing the police bashing protestors — when an “officer pointed a short gun at Dlamini’s face and demanded why he took pictures of the officers who were at work”.
The protestors were not armed — they were trying to deliver a petition to their local leader, said Dlamini in an interview with Swaziland’s Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland).
“It wasn’t necessary for the police to beat the protestors. I saw nothing wrong with the protestors.”
When Dlamini was asked if he thought the policeman would have shot him or whether he was just trying to scare him, the photojournalist replied: “I don’t know, anything can happen.”
The bashing of protestors — who are unhappy with what they believe to be unfair and unfree elections — and intimidation of journalists last Saturday, adds to the growing reality of police repression and muzzling of civil and media freedoms in the southern African kingdom.
Despite assurances and encouragement from the highest authority King Mswati III that his subjects are free to meet and speak as they please, the experience on the ground tells a different story.
The Times of Swaziland editorial on September 30, “Reporting at gunpoint”, asks if there is “freedom of the press in this Monarchical Democracy of ours”? It also asks if “reporters are allowed to go about their lawful business without harassment from law enforcers and government agents”?
As the media is heavily censored in Swaziland, and in many cases reporters will self-censor before any official re-write or deletion is required, journalists and editors are often forced to ask such self-evident questions — is the media free? — as a way of saying: The media is not free.
The Times of Swaziland editorial continues:
“In a shocking incident that will no doubt make the next human rights reports on Swaziland, a plain-clothed police officer pointed his handgun at Senior Photojournalist of the Times SUNDAY Walter Dlamini (who is about as humble and mild-mannered as a man can be) for taking photographs of his colleagues holding and beating a protester behind a police van, demanding that he delete the pictures. Surely the police are taught the first and most basic fire safety rule; do not point a gun at a person unless you mean to shoot. If not, this is criminal negligence. If so, this is harassment and intimidation of the highest order, an implicit threat to the life of the journalist.
“This sorry excuse for a police officer had reason to be worried; he and his colleagues were caught in the act assaulting a protestor who was manifestly not being threatening but was obviously being ‘punished’; being struck on the knee (where permanent damage could occur) with a heavy wooden truncheon by one uniformed brute while two others held him and another watched from a short distance, truncheons dangling in readiness from their hands.
“The casual work-a-day savagery of these police officers and their sense of entitlement to brutalising Swazi citizens with impunity goes a long way to explaining why they would attack with teargas and batons what was a peaceful protest march before their intervention; once again proving the police are responsible for much of the violence that erupts during protests.
“The protesters may not have been in the right to disagree with the election results from Gege, but they certainly had a right to complain about it and their right to life and safety should trump the legal necessity of getting a permit to protest.
“Those officers responsible for this violent assault on the Constitutional Rights of the public and the press must be brought to book publicly, and soon, or our peaceful image as a nation will be proved a sham.”
Concerned and worried by continued harassment of journalists by police, MISA-Swaziland together with the Swaziland Editors’ Forum (SFE) met this morning with national police commissioner, Isaac Magagula, to lodge a formal complaint.
The national police commissioner “unreservedly” apologised to the whole media fraternity and the affected journalists at the Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers. As a lasting solution to this problem, he suggested organising a training course on the role of media for all the police, from the top brass down to the juniors.
“It would also help if the journalists carry their press cards or wear vests written ‘press’ for identification purposes when covering riots,” he said.
Editor of Times of Swaziland’s Sunday newspaper, Innocent Maphalala, “strongly condemned the action of the police, wondering if this was how the police wanted the world to perceive the kingdom’s Monarchical Democracy”, reported the Times of Swaziland on Monday 29 September.
Phakama Shili, advocacy officer at MISA-Swaziland, said the “inhumane” squashing of protest and threats against the media “should be condemned in the strongest possible terms”.
“Journalism is becoming a dangerous profession in a country that projects itself as peaceful to the outside world,” said Shili.
“If there’s no action taken, journalists may end up being killed. The situation requires urgent attention.”
For comments or queries, please contact:
MISA-Swaziland National Director