Defamation Pay Day: Swazi politician wins biggest defamation case in kingdom’s history

MISA-Swaziland | Media Alert
December 8, 2014

Senate President Gelane Simelane-Zwane has won E550,000 ($50,000) in a controversial defamation case against the country’s only privately-owned daily newspaper, reports local media.

gelane_times of swaziland
Big Pay Day. Senate President Gelane Simelane-Zwane. Photo: Times of Swaziland

Simelane-Zwane, who is also acting chief of KoNtshingila, sued the Times of Swaziland over an article it published about Simelane-Zwane’s birth name.

The article in question raised doubts whether Simelane was in fact born a Simelane, or, as suggested by the article, born to a man with the surname of Mahlangu. The article also touched on the Senate President’s ongoing battle to retain the chieftaincy of KoNtshingila, which depends on her being a Simelane and not a Mahlangu.

The Supreme Court ruling on 3 December 2014 unequivocally found in Simelane-Zwane’s favour.

“This is the highest award in the history of defamation cases in the Kingdom,” reported weekly newspaper Sunday Observer.

“In neighbouring South Africa,” continued the report, “the media went ballistic after the Supreme Court of Appeal awarded damages amounting to E150,000 ($13,000)” to a former police official.

The three judges who handed down the ruling – Nigerian-born Esta Ota; American Bar Association member Stanley Moore; and Lesotho-born chief justice Michael Ramodibedi – emphasised the high-status of Simelane-Zwane in Swazi politics and society, suggesting the more powerful one is the more they deserve from a defamation case.

The judgment, according to the Sunday Observer report, went further in praising Simelane-Zwane: “She is not just a local figure but an international personality.”

In 2008 a government official was awarded E120,000 ($11,000), which was the highest defamation award until last week’s judgment.

This recent ruling has sent further chills through Swaziland’s already heavily censored and fearful media.

Earlier this year two writers were convicted of contempt of court for questioning the actions of the judiciary. Respected and award-winning editor of The Nation magazine Bheki Makhbu and columnist Thulani Maskeo were sentenced to two-years in jail without the option of a fine.

Swaziland’s judiciary, with controversial chief justice Rambodibedi at the helm, continues to draw negative attention from local and international observers. Advocates for the rule of law and a more tolerant country have been calling for Ramodibedi to step down for several years.

In silencing the media the judiciary is ultimately harming the prospects of the nation. Without open and unfettered debate, progress will only benefit the fortunate few at the top.

In suppressing sincerely held opinions or inconvenient truths in the name of respect, the judiciary is displaying remarkable disrespect for the principles of natural justice and tolerance. If freedom of speech is continually trampled on, the image of Swaziland in the eyes of the world will continue to decline. It is not the so-called ‘disrespectful’ or ‘offensive’ speech that causes the problems; it is the criminalizing and silencing of that speech, of that open debate, which causes the problems.

In handing out disproportionate rulings in defamation cases in the name of protecting the powerful, the judiciary is harming Swaziland’s constitution, which should be protecting free speech and media freedom.

Featured image credit on homepage: Association of Senates



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