FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

 “A free press reduces poverty… and boosts economic development.” — Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate

Swaziland’s constitution explicitly protects freedom of expression. But the extent of the protection is questionable since section 24 of the constitution contains elaborate limitations that could be used to curtail freedom of expression.

There are also many laws — new and old — that infringe on freedom of expression. Most notably the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) 2008, which has created a climate of fear. The Amnesty International report, ‘An Atmosphere of Intimidation‘, says, “all those who were vocal are quieter now because of the Act.” The STA defines support of terrorism so broadly that virtually anyone can be prosecuted. This law clearly sets out to obstruct free speech.

Swazi Law and Custom (traditional beliefs and values) also instills fear when practicing freedom of expression. Customary law prohibits criticising and questioning those in authority, especially the monarchy. This severely restricts public discourse and the free flow of ideas. The African Media Barometer reported in April 2009 that a columnist for the Times of Swaziland criticised the king’s leadership. The palace reacted by forcing the Times to muzzle the columnist. The columnist then faced retribution from the traditional authorities including the chief of his area.

MISA-Swaziland recognises that the right to freedom of expression must have some restrictions, but the existing restrictions are too onerous and are having a detrimental effect on Swazi society. “People just cannot organize public meetings to debate issues without being monitored, harassed or even dispersed by state police,” reported the Africa Media Barometer, a media monitoring survey, in 2009.

MISA-Swaziland is calling for the amendment or repeal of all legislation that unnecessarily limits freedom of expression.

MISA demands that government ensure all freedom of expression restrictions meet the standards of the “three-part test”. That is, a restriction on freedom of expression must be (a) prescribed by law; (b) serve a legitimate aim; and (c) be necessary in a democratic society.

For a restriction on freedom of expression to be necessary the benefits it brings must outweigh its harm. MISA firmly believes the harm done to free speech under the Suppression of Terrorism Act far outweighs any supposed benefits . This law clearly lacks proportionality and therefore does not meet international human rights standards.

Has your  right to freedom of expression been violated in Swaziland?
If so, email misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Useful links:

Freedom House

Article 19

IFEX

Committee to Protect Journalists

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