So this is democracy? Media freedom in Swaziland continues to come under threat in 2013

MISA-Swaziland’s Annual Statement on the Media for 2013

MISA logo

This article forms part of the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s report on the state of media freedom in the region in 2013 — So this is Democracy? To read this article in PDF click here and to read the regional overview click here

In Swaziland, 2013 saw the continued criminalisation of freedom of expression with the courts imposing a heavy fine on a print editor, and a mob and police physically attacking and harassing journalists who covered protests.

In April 2013, Swaziland Independent Publishers and The Nation magazine editor Bheki Makhubu was convicted of ‘scandalising the court’ and slapped with a hefty fine of E400 000 which was reduced to E200 000 (US$20,000). Judge Bheki Maphalala ordered Makhubu to pay the US$20,000 within three days of his conviction or spend two years in jail.

In the same year, a plain clothes officer pointed a gun at Times of Swaziland photojournalist Walter Dlamini, after he photographed election protesters at the Gege Inkhundla.

In yet another incident, a police officer attacked a Times of Swaziland reporter, Sisho Magagula and ordered him to delete pictures before leaving the scene. Magagula was covering a protest against KoNtshingila Acting Chief Gelane Zwane when the police officer ambushed him. MISA-Swaziland and the Swazi Editors’ Forum sprang into action engaging the national police commissioner Isaac Magagula on the matter. He finally set up a commission of inquiry whose findings have not yet been released to the public.

Click here to download PDF version of this report
Click here to download PDF version of this report

Two weeks into the New Year an angry mob took the law into its own hands when it attacked Swazi Observer freelance journalist Eugene Dube, in Machobeni area in the south of the country. Dube was punched, kicked and assaulted with sticks and other weapons. He sustained serious injuries on his forehead, right shoulder and elbows and his camera was damaged. Dube said he tried to explain he was a journalist, but the mob would not listen.

But it was not year of doom and gloom only in Swaziland as some positive incidences happened during the period under review. For instance, the national elections held in September had Swazis question, for the first time, the Tinkhundla-based system of governance under which the King choses a prime minister and 10 Members of Parliament (MPs) and voters elect 55 MPs from an approved list by the King.

Soon after elections, the African Union (AU) Election Observer Mission called for a review of the system to be brought in line with the fundamental rights of freedom of association and assembly guaranteed in the AU’s African People’s Charter on People and Human Rights.

King Mswati III himself spoke out in support of those exercising their right to freedom of expression when he ordered Royal Swaziland Police (RSP) to stop violating citizens’ rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly. This was after police violently broke up several civil society and prayer meetings. The King commanded that police allow his subjects to speak, associate and assemble freely, but police seemed to disregard the royal command.

Click here to download a PDF version of this article

Media Landscape
With a population of 1.2 million, the Swazi media sector is small but influential.

There are two major players in the newspaper industry, namely the Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers and Observer Group of Newspapers. The Times of Swaziland is privately owned by the Loffler family while the Swazi Observer is owned by Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, an investment fund owned by the King “in trust for the Swazi nation”. The former publishes the Times of Swaziland, Swazi News and Times of Swaziland Sunday. The latter owns the Swazi Observer, Observer on Saturday and the new Sunday Observer, which began printing in 2013.

The Nation magazine is a private monthly publication that has a reputation for commenting, without fear or favour, on Swazi affairs. It is well known for speaking the truth to power.

There is another periodical called Agribusiness, which specialises in agribusiness stories. In addition there are other weekly and monthly publications with small print runs that are not widely available and sometimes publish sporadically. One of the private weeklies is the Sunday Independent newspapers which has a business bias.

There is one national television station, Swaziland Television Broadcasting Corporation, a parastatal that is state-controlled. The national radio station, Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services, functions as a government department and nearly all its content is censored. These two broadcasters act as government propaganda mouthpieces. There is one community radio station, the Voice of the Church. However, it has limited reach and is only licensed to broadcast religious content and health information.

A privately owned TV station, Channel Swazi, was established in 2001. It has not added much value in terms of media diversity or independence. Channel Swazi has only survived by outdoing the state-owned broadcasters in kowtowing to the authorities and influential people.

Owing to severe State and self-censorship, when criticism is offered by much of the media it is often offered in defence of the King. Many media practitioners seemingly and subtly criticise the King and government while at the same time defending his name and institution.

State of Print Media
In addition to the three cases enumerated earlier, controversial Swazi Observer Managing Director, Alpheous Nxumalo, vowed not to allow pro-democracy voices to be published in the royal newspaper. He accused the independent media and civil society groups of undermining the stability and prestige of the monarchy.

He said “the so-called democracy activists find it democratic to insult the head of state and government in the media as a strategy of democratising Swaziland”. MISA-Swaziland and SEF challenged him to name and shame the culprits but Nxumalo failed to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 1.56.59 PM

On World Press Freedom Day, on 03 May 2013, MISA-Swaziland led a protest march of print journalists, civil society groups and sympathisers. The protesters, who had masking tapes on their mouths, marched to deliver petitions to the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, and Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

The protesters brought to light media freedom violations in the country. This march bore fruit as King Mswati III and Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini addressed for the first time the freedom of expression issues in public. The PM went a step further ordering the petitioned ministers to respond but they did not.

Another of the positives during the period under review was the reinstatement of suspended Swazi Observer and Weekend Observer editors by the newly appointed Sithofeni Ginindza-led Observer Newspapers Group Board of Directors. Alec Lushaba and Thulani Thwala, controversially suspended under Nxumalo’s directorship, were reinstated eight months later.

Nxumalo accused the pair of continuously publishing stories tarnishing the King’s image by repeatedly ignoring warnings about the negative coverage but Ginindza found insufficient reason for their suspension and reinstated them.

Swazis march for press freedom on May 3, 2013

MISA-Swaziland arranged a meeting for the editors and civil society representatives to iron out their differences and find common ground. Civil society representative Lomcebo Dlamini said media and civil society needed each other and they should work together, understand and appreciate each other’s roles. Martin Dlamini, who is deputy chairperson of the editors’ forum and Managing Director of the Times of Swaziland advised civil society to package their messages in the most palatable language to get it published.

The Media Complaints Commission (MCC) for print media became operational in April 2013. It is currently supported by the two national newspapers, Times of Swaziland and the Swazi Observer. The public can now contact the ombudsman who, along with a panel, decides whether corrective action should be taken or the complaint should be taken to mediation.

MISA-Swaziland is assisting the MCC with its overheads and has offered the MCC Ombudsman working space at its offices.

However, veteran journalist Jabu Matsebula, who is secretary general of the editors’ forum and publisher of the Agribusiness magazine, was appointed the MCC Ombudsman. This has raised concern as his close association with the editors’ forum and his current job as Agribusiness publisher does not inspire confidence in the MCC. There is an urgent need for the MCC Board to find an independent ombudsman.

State of Broadcast Media
Government maintained its vice-like grip on the state-controlled broadcast media. Prime Minister Dlamini insisted that every media worldwide, has its own guidelines regulating how it should operate, and this should be followed by all.

Article 2.2.2 sub-Section (IV) of Public Service Announcement Guidelines for broadcasting says that any announcement ‘that is negative or does not support the Government’s agenda shall not be allowed.’ The government invoked the PSA guidelines not only to suppress dissenting voices but also to suppress the voices of Members of Parliament in the State broadcasters.

The legislators felt the guidelines were meant to frustrate them as they were accused of using radio to campaign. The ban imposed during election campaigns drove MP Masende Zwane to tears as he pleaded with the PM to lift it, claiming it frustrated progress and the free flow of information. MP Zwane was stopped from making public announcements on State radio. The head of government did not budge an inch.

The ban also affected ministers who were told to slow down on the usage of national radio in the lead up to the national elections. According to Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku this was done to avoid a situation where some people would have unfair advantage, because not everyone would have access to national radio. Ministers were only allowed to speak on official business. Even before then, they would have to seek permission from the deputy prime minister’s office. These measures effectively gagged election candidates in the broadcast media, which has a wider reach than print media.

ICT Minister Winnie Magagula, in what appeared to be a vote of no confidence in State media professionals, fired Chairman of the Swaziland Television Authority (STVA) Dr Maxwell Mthembu. According to him, this was through a letter which did not give a specific reason for his dismissal. STVA is responsible for regulating the country’s electronic media. Swazi TV, which falls under STVA, is heavily censored and is widely viewed as a government propaganda mouthpiece. The Minister is responsible for the appointment of the STVA chairperson but can remove the appointee at any time and is not required by law to provide a reason.

On the positive note, the ICT Minister tabled the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill 2013 and the Swaziland Broadcasting Corporation Bill 2013 in Senate in early March 2013. The Swaziland Broadcasting Bill has five objectives. Notably, the Bill provides ‘for freedom of expression through broadcasting.’ It also seeks to regulate ‘sound and television services and provide for the maximum availability of broadcasting to the people through the three-tier system of public, commercial and community broadcasting services.’ In addition, the Bill seeks to contribute to the ‘socio-economic development of society’ and nation building, while ‘strengthening the spiritual and moral fibre’ of the country.

The Swaziland Community Radio Network was launched in July. This marked the beginning of a strong civil society platform that aims to advocate, lobby and mobilise resources for community broadcasting. The six members include Lubombo Community Radio, Matsanjeni Community Radio, Ngwempisi Community Radio, University of Swaziland, Voice of the Church and the Seventh Adventist Church. The community radio network will campaign for the passage of the two broadcasting bills into law.

Another positive development was the granting of a commercial radio licence to a broadcasting company. The Nation magazine reported that Africa Unite FM (AUFM) was awarded the licence on 22 February 2013 despite there being no law to allow them to get it. Stan Motsa, Director of Communications in the ICT Ministry, responsible for radio licensing, issued the licence. AUFM is owned by two Swazi businesspersons, Victor Shongwe and Thandanani Dlamini. They own 35% each while the other 30% may be sold to the public. MISA-Swaziland welcomed the licensing because it would promote media diversity and pluralism.

ICTs and Telecommunications
Swaziland’s Parliament passed two pieces of communication legislations, the Swaziland Communications Commission Bill of 2010 and the Electronics Communications Bill of 2009. This was viewed as victory for the country’s telecommunications industry as the two Bills will liberalise the sector. The Swaziland Communications Bill seeks to establish a Swaziland Communications Commission, provide for the appointment of a Board of Directors and regulatory functions of the Commission with regard to electronic communications, data protection, postal services, electronic commerce and broadcasting. The Bill would also provide for the transfer of regulatory powers and functions of the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunication Corporation to the Commission. The aim of the Electronics Communications Bill is to provide a framework for the development of electronic communication networks and services in Swaziland.

In July 2013, the ICT Ministry looked into drafting the cybercrime laws. The ministry hosted a conference titled “Transportation of SADC Cybersecurity Models Laws in National Laws for Swaziland, 2013”. According to ICT Principal Secretary Sikelela Dlamini, the cybercrime laws are needed in Swaziland to prevent computer hacking, stop internet predators and to clamp down on online pornography. The ministry went on to discuss internet security and regulation as well data protection legislation.

Anti-social or social community?
Anti-social or social community?

Development of Social Media
Social media continues to grow in Swaziland. Facebook is becoming more popular, particularly for people in urban areas and for those who are able to afford the data costs on their mobile phones. But chatting on Facebook remains a luxury for many because 63% of Swazis live below the poverty line.

Among those on online, not many twit as Twitter is not as popular as Facebook, though it is being used more often now than in previous years. There is a clear generational divide, with the older generation more sceptical and critical of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, often viewing such social media as more of a threat than an opportunity. The younger generation, who have grown up with technology, instinctively see the benefits of social media, and are more liberal in the use of platforms. The mobile-based text platform WhatsApp also continues to grow daily.

Despite the challenges associated with social media, abusive and unsavoury material online, the continued growth of social media bodes well for freedom of expression. In many ways it is allowing people to practice their legal right to free speech and media freedom. This is particularly the case when the mainstream media, newspapers, radio and TV, are restricted in what they can disseminate. Younger people are taking control of the content they wish to consume and disseminate.

Click here to download PDF of this report
Click here to download PDF of this report

Conclusions and Projections
While freedom of expression continued to be criminalised in Swaziland, the powers that be for first time commented on the state of freedom of expression and media freedom. King Mswati III, who proclaims to be the number one defender of the Constitution, ordered the royal police to allow people to enjoy their right to free speech although his order was not carried through.

Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini admitted that Swaziland was not perfect but was trying while national police commissioner Isaac Magagula set up a commission of inquiry into the police harassment of journalists in line of duty. In addition, Magagula asked for a training course for the police on the role of the media in society.

All this goes to show that the sown seeds of freedom of expression are beginning to sprout. MISA Swaziland, going by the adage that “it is time to engage not carp”, is optimistic that the Swazi people will one day have access to information which is a natural bridge to freedom of expression and media freedom.

This article is an extract from the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s annual publication on the state of media in the region — So This Is Democracy?

Click here to read about the state of media freedom in other southern African countries where MISA works



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: