Statement on World Press Freedom Day: Swaziland Editors Forum

Statement issued by Swaziland Editors Forum
3 May 2013

Swaziland today joins the international community in commemorating World Press Freedom Day (WPFD)

The theme: “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”, immediately reminds us of the trial of our colleague Bheki Makhubu, Editor of the Nation Magazine who the High Court convicted of scandalizing the judiciary and sentenced him to an unprecedented fine of E400,000 or go to jail because he published articles critical of the judiciary. It is sad to say that this incident which sent waves of anger across the world will have a chilling effect on the press and on freedom of expression. We do not believe that criticism of the judiciary should be a crime. We believe the public should respect and hold the judiciary in esteem for their dignity that inspires confidence – not because the courts are centres of fear. We are still shocked that the judiciary – a public institution should find it necessary to protect itself with fear.

For the record, Makhubu is a member of our Forum, and the Editors of Swaziland stand beside him at this most challenging time.

WPFD is an opportunity for public education on the concept of Press Freedom which is greatly misunderstood. Press Freedom seems to suggest a self appointed right of journalists to do as they please. Nothing could be further from the truth. Journalists are public (not civil) servants. Almost everyone relies on the media to learn about news and hear various perspectives of opinion and debates. The media therefore has a central role in advancing freedom of information and freedom of expression. Journalists work in the public space to fulfil a public need to share information. They are there to serve the public interest.

Press freedom is the right of the public (not the press) to access information without restrictions. This definition of Press Freedom is consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

A similar declaration is found in our constitution under Article 24 (2) which says that “a person shall not except with the free consent of that person be hindered in the enjoyment of the freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press and other media.”

Because they are the public watchdog, journalists have a duty to expose information and highlight incidents that powerful people and institutions wish concealed at all costs. Governments often dislike influential voices that provide alternative solutions and often use laws and censorship regulations to restrain, limit or control the media.

It is not uncommon for the authorities to impose fines so onerous that the only objective can clearly be an intention to close them down. We hope that is not the objective of the severe financial penalties against the Nation Magazine.

However journalists are human. Sometimes they too are at fault and present inaccurate information and perspectives that result in the injury of people’s names and reputations.  As responsible citizens, Journalists recognize the constitutional right of other citizens to dignity and respect in line with Section 63 under the Directive Principles of State Policy which calls for “respect for the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of others, and generally to refrain from doing acts detrimental to the welfare of other persons.”

For many years, the public has expressed the legitimate complaint that the media acted as though a law unto itself, and was not bound by any rules or regulation. But that has changed: Since the 1st April 2013, the media established the Media Complaints Commission (MCC) as a self regulatory mechanism to enforce compliance by journalists, of a professional code of ethics. The code compel journalists to be honest, tell the truth and work only in the public interest.

The press in Swaziland believes self-regulation involving exclusively representatives of the press and representatives of civil society as the only way of protecting, promoting and exercising our constitutional guarantees and rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Any other form of regulation would threaten the rights of the public to freely access information and exercise their freedom of expression.

World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to urge the public to claim their rights secured under MCC to access impartial, expeditious and cost-effective dispute resolution. The mechanism is based on two pillars. One the one hand, it is a commitment to freedom of the press and on the other, to excellence in journalistic practice and ethics.

The Press in Swaziland has adopted the Swaziland Journalists Code of Ethics. The code provides a guide for journalists on their daily practice of gathering and distributing news and opinion. The same code will be used to guide the MCC and help them reach decisions on complaints against journalists accused of violating ethics.

Issued by Jabu Matsebula
Secretary General, Swaziland Editors Forum

Statement on World Press Freedom Day: MISA Head Office

Media Institute of Southern Africa, Regional Office, Namibia
Statement, 3 May 2013

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) is deeply concerned about the rate at which media freedom and freedom of expression violations are occurring within the southern African region. We are particularly concerned that some of these violations have resulted in the death of journalists and others have resulted in severe body and psychological injuries.

In this regard, our hearts go out to the families of Daudi Mwangosi and Issa Ngumba, who lost these two journalists in September 2012 and January 2013 respectively. We know they are missed. Our hearts also go out to many other African and global journalists whose blood has been spilt because somebody somewhere did not understand – or chose todisrespect – the sacrosanct duty of a journalist in society.

Indeed, we carry in our thoughts many other journalists who have suffered injuries in the course of doing their work. Absalom Kibanda, a senior Tanzanian editor who was brutally attacked outside his Dar-es-Salaam home in March this year is but one of them.

The editor was attacked as he returned from work. His attackers, who are said to have been wielding guns, pulled him out of his vehicle and brutally assaulted him severely, leaving him unconscious. Kibanda had some of his teeth and nails plucked out and his left eye was pierced with a sharp object. He eventually lost the eye and has now been given an artificial eye.

Speaking with MISA ahead of World Press Freedom Day, Kibanda, who is recovering as an out-patient in Johannesburg, was in high spirits and showed tremendous signs of recovery, given the circumstances under which he was left by his attackers.

It is this kind of resilience that inspires us to work even harder in defending media freedom and freedom of expression within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and, by extension, across the rest of the world. We are energised by the many journalists, editors and media practitioners who continue to speak truth to power, putting their lives under considerable risk but unashamedly spurred on by the convictions of truth, fairness and accuracy.

In light of these developments MISA supports the United Nations (UN) Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Research shows that a staggering number of journalists and media workers have been killed while performing their professional duties. It is reported that in nine out of ten cases, the perpetrators of these crimes are never prosecuted. Impunity, which may be understood as the failure tobring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice, perpetuates thecycle of violence against journalists and must be addressed.

As we commemorate this day, World Press Freedom Day, MISA is proud to have an association with journalists, editors, media practitioners and free expression activists who understand both their rights and responsibilities in society. We continue to encourage adherence to codes of ethics and to the maintenance of high standards of reporting, which is what those who consume our products and services expect, edition after edition.

However, these expectations cannot be fully met if the environment within which the practice of journalism must occur is unsafe or is being deliberately made hostile to media freedom and freedom of expression. In this regard, we call upon relevant stakeholders, including governments, law-enforcement agencies, policymakers and the public at large, to account for the critical importance of the media’s role in society wheneverdesigning interventions.

MISA is taken aback by cases of governments which fail to necessitate an enabling environment for media freedom and freedom of expression to thrive. We are taken aback by law enforcement agencies who allow themselves to be put in the pockets of powerful political or commercialinterests for purposes of stifling media freedom and freedom ofexpression. Some members of the public who are reluctant to appreciate the role of media in society, especially during protest actions, also take us aback as we experienced in South Africa at the beginning of this year.

As such, the safety of journalists in society is a collective matter. Hence, MISA will continue to build alliances and support efforts towards securing a safe environment for journalists, media practitioners and free expression activists.

Zoé Titus
MISA Regional Director

Editor lodges appeal against conviction

MISA-Swaziland Alert-update
23 April 2013 

Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation magazine, has lodged an appeal against his conviction and sentence. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) understands the appeal went through late Monday (22 April) and was in time to beat today’s deadline of paying a US$21,500 fine or face two years in prison.

The Nation, one of Swaziland’s very few independent sources of news is published by Swaziland Independent Publishers. The magazine was found guilty of “contempt by scandalizing the court” following its publication of two articles in 2009 and 2010 that criticised Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.

Today’s edition of the Times of Swaziland reports that “this [the appeal] means the magazine and its editor Bheki Makhubu will no longer have to meet today’s deadline” of paying the $US21,500 fine as ordered by high court judge, Bheki Maphalala, last week. He is also not going to prison as things currently stand.

The editor now awaits a determination on his appeal by the Supreme Court. MISA understands that the court’s decision may only come in November this year as the court only sits in May and November to deliberate on appeals. It is unlikely that Makhubu’s appeal will make it into the May sitting.

MISA has expressed serious concern about the editor’s conviction and sentence. The organisation’s Programme Specialist for Media Freedom Monitoring and Research, Levi Kabwato, described the development as “a major setback for media freedom and freedom of expression in Swaziland”. He also called on journalists, media practitioners and free expression activists around the world to support the call for media freedom in Swaziland.

“With elections due in the country later this year, the media’s role will become ever so critical. but if that media is under the threat of legal sanction, or indeed other threats as we have recorded previously, then this is only the beginning of what is likely to be a very problematic period for Swazi media,” Kabwato said.

For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director

misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Support pours in for editor threatened with jail

MISA-Swaziland Alert-update
22 April 2013

Support continues to pour in for Bheki Makhubu, an editor in Swaziland who was recently threatened with a two-year jail term for “scandalising the court”. Makhubu was ordered to pay Emlangeni E200,000 (approximately US$21,500) or face two years in prison by Justice Bheki Maphalala last Wednesday, 17 April 2013.

Makhubu edits one of Swaziland’s few independent sources of news, The Nation magazine, published by Swaziland Independent Publishers. The magazine was found guilty of “contempt by scandalizing the court” following its publication of two articles in 2009 and 2010 that criticised Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.

The summary of Justice Maphalala’s ruling mentions the “right to freedom of expression and opinion” and says “judges and courts are open to criticism provided that the criticism is fair and legitimate and does not exceed accepted boundaries”. In this case, however, the judge told The Nation it was “guilty of contempt by scandalizing the court”.

Over the weekend, Swazi media and other free expressions organisations came out in support of Makhubu and criticised the heavy penalties both the journalist and the magazine are facing.

The Monday (22 April) editorial of the Times of Swaziland described the sentence as “an attempt [by the Judiciary] to put a lid on complaints”. Mbongeni Mbingo, managing editor of the Swazi Observer, which is owned by an investment fund controlled by King Mswati III, wrote a ‘blank page’ opinion piece titled ‘Dear Judge Maphalala’.

The Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) has been quoted by local media as saying they had set up a fund to assist Makhubu and The Nation. Details of the fund are still not available but SNAJ president, Mfanukhona Nkambule, can be contacted on mobile: +268-7621 6503.

Meanwhile, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has said it “objects in the strongest terms to the conviction and sentencing” of Makhubu. In a statement, Sanef further urged the South African government and African Union to “more vigorously remind the Swazi authorities of the importance of a free press and open democratic environment.”

Makhubu is expected to appeal the conviction and sentence on Tuesday, 23 April 2013. It is not yet clear whether the appeal will be heard immediately or at a later stage, possibly after several months.

MISA will continue to send updates.

For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director

misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Wave of support for embattled Swazi editor

MISA-Swaziland Analysis
22 April 2013

The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland), a press freedom NGO, is encouraged by the number of voices supporting embattled editor Bheki Makhubu, who last week was told by the high court to pay E200,000 ($US21,000) within three days or else go to jail for two years.

Makhubu, editor of monthly magazine The Nation – Swaziland’s last remaining source of independent journalism – was found guilty by high court judge Bheki Maphalala of ‘scandalising the courts’ after writing two articles (in November 2009 and February 2010) about the role of the kingdom’s judiciary.

The articles question the independence Swazi judges, criticise controversial chief justice Michael Ramodibedi, and call on newly appointed judges to adhere to the 2005 Constitution.

If Makhubu and his publisher, Swaziland Independent Publishers, are unable to pay the $US21,000 fine by Tuesday 23 April, 2013, the prominent editor will spend the next two years behind bars.

Swazi Media Commentary, a blog based in Botswana, reports that “Makhubu has said he will appeal the sentence, but grounds for such appeal have not been made public, and they are not immediately obvious to media watchers of the kingdom. Observers expect Makhubu to be imprisoned on Tuesday”.

The Times of Swaziland Sunday, a privately owned but censored tabloid, reports on 21 April that Makhubu has lodged an appeal and is awaiting a reply. “I have since filed an appeal against the judgment and I will be waiting for its outcome,” said Makhubu.

President of Swaziland’s national association of journalists (SNAJ), Mfanukhona Nkambule, said in the Times Sunday report that SNAJ had launched a fund to assist Makhubu and The Nation to pay the fine. Makhubu said The Nation, as a small magazine, does not have the money to pay the fine.

MISA-Swaziland supports this move and calls on anyone wanting to donate to contact Nkambule on +268 7621 6503.

Makhubu has received support from fellow Swazis, while retrained backing has come from the local media, which is mostly owned and controlled by the government and the royal family. The one independent newspaper group in the kingdom, The Times of Swaziland, is heavily censored and does not directly or consistently question or criticise the ruling elite.

Despite this, editors at the two daily newspapers – Times of Swaziland and Swazi Observer – have made an effort to support Makhubu. The Times editorial on Monday, April 22 2013 describes the sentence against Makhubu “as an attempt [by the judiciary] to put a lid on complaints”.

Mbongeni Mbingo, managing editor of the Swazi Observer, which is owned by Tibiyo Take Ngwane, an investment fund effectively owned and controlled by King Mswati III, wrote a ‘blank page’ opinion piece that seemingly criticises the decision of judge Bheki Maphalala, and, therefore, could be interpreted as an act to stand in solidarity with The Nation magazine.

Jabulani Matsebula, president of Swaziland’s editors’ forum (SEF), commenting on Makhubu’s sentence, said: “It is a shock that in this day and age anyone can actually receive a custodial sentence for criticising a public institution and expressing himself on the conduct of a public official.”

Matsebula, recently appointed as Swaziland’s first media ombudsman, added that it is “particularly disturbing because The Nation magazine is considered a credible independent voice in Swazi journalism”.

Veteran Swazi journalist and director of MISA-Swaziland, Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, called the judgment “deeply disappointing” and an “assault to media freedom and free speech”.

Hlatshwayo, who is also a director and founding member of The Nation magazine (and therefore himself liable, along with Makhubu, to pay the fine imposed by the judge) said: “The fine imposed by the judge is also a total clampdown on media freedom – it sends a strong and disturbing signal to the already censored newspapers and broadcast media.”

The South African Editors Forum (Sanef) posted news of Makhubu’s story on its website homepage (www.sanef.org.au) under the headline, “Sanef concerned with sentencing of Swaziland Editor Bheki Makhubu”.

In part, the Sanef statement reads: “The use of contempt charges to silence legitimate scrutiny of judicial conduct and attitudes will do nothing to secure the dignity and credibility of Swaziland’s courts. On the contrary, by seeking to enforce silence rather than foster open debate, this judgment is more likely to engender doubt, criticism, and suspicion of Swaziland’s courts than it is to create respect.”

Sanef also urges the South African government and the African Union to “more vigorously remind the Swazi authorities of the importance of a free press and open democratic environment”.

In some of the strongest language against the ruling, the Swaziland solidarity network (SSN), a pro-democracy movement based in South Africa, said: “In the High Court of Public opinion where the Chief Justice Ramodibedi is viewed as the worst Chief Justice the country has ever seen, the king’s lap dog and currently occupies his position unconstitutionally, the entire case is a witch hunt and a political manoeuvre on the country’s only independent magazine and the government’s most fearless critic.”

The SSN appear to allude to Section 157(1) of Swaziland’s Constitution, which came into effect on July 26 2005, says: “A person who is not a citizen of Swaziland shall not be appointed as Justice of a superior court after seven years from the commencement of this Constitution.”

The Chief Justice in Swaziland is Michael Ramodibedi.

Ramodibedi, as reported by the Mail & Guardian this week in its article ‘Judicial crackdown on Swazi editor’, was recruited from Lesotho, where he continues to sit as president of that country’s court of appeal.

Putting aside the conflict that may arise from being chief justice in one country while simultaneously being president of the court of appeal in another country, it is now April 2013, more than seven years after the commencement of Swaziland’s Constitution.

Does this, therefore, suggest that Lesotho citizen (and non-Swazi citizen) Michael Ramodibedi, who is current chief justice of Swaziland, is now holding his Swazi post unconstitutionally?

According to Section 157(1) of Swaziland’s highest law, it would seem so.

Flowing from this, Section 64(2) of the Constitution says the king, as head of state, “shall protect and defend this Constitution and all laws made under or continued in force by this Constitution. Which in turn leads to Section 64(4)(d), which states that the king has the power to issue “pardons” and “reprieves”. Therefore, if he so wishes, power lies with King Mswati III to pardon Bheki Makhubu.

Above all these sections, though, is Section 24(1): “A person has a right of freedom of expression and opinion,” which includes “freedom of the press and other media”.

If the matter continues in the courts, which is most likely, MISA-Swaziland calls on the judiciary to respect Section 24 of the Constitution and, on appeal – after a transparent and proper legal process has been followed – to drop the charges against Bheki Makhubu and The Nation.

As bad as criticism is, criminalising words and articles in the name of respect will do nothing to generate confidence in the Swazi judicial system. And, as hurtful as criticism may be, criminalising inconvenient truths and silencing dissent, in the long run, does nothing to sure up Swaziland’s place in the modern world.

The free exchange of ideas and words – harmful, offensive and critical words included – are a necessary part of democracy and, moreover, are legally protected by Swaziland’s Constitution. What’s more, legitimate debate and truth should always be a watertight defence.

Notwithstanding the above legal quagmire, the Mail & Guardian in the same article this week reported a piece of information that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the Swazi media.

Swaziland’s “Attorney general Majahenkhaba Dlamini prosecuted the case [against The Nation] after being delegated to do so by his wife Mumsy Dlamini, the director of public prosecutions”.

MISA-Swaziland suggests that this mere fact – that a public prosecutor wife delegates a case to an attorney general husband – raises certain conflict of interest questions.

Also lending their support to Bheki Makhubu and The Nation is Swaziland’s centre for human rights. In a statement the centre said they were “shocked” by the court’s ruling. “We believe the media is very important for every state and their critical thinking is pivotal for social development in all sectors of life. The judiciary, though independent, is not immune from criticism. Section 24 of our Constitution provides for the freedom of expression.”

Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said the sentencing of Makhubu is a “blatant disregard for the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression”. Freedom House calls on the government of Swaziland to “withdraw all charges against Bheki Makhubu and stop its continued attack on its citizens’ political rights and civil liberties”.

London-based human rights NGO Amnesty International, which has helped Bheki Makhubu and The Nation in the past, said the judges ruling was “proof of the southern African kingdom’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on independent media and freedom of expression”.

The local media in Swaziland, particularly the state owned and controlled broadcast media, has been mostly silent (or cautiously restrained) in defending The Nation, and, by extension, defending their own freedom of speech.

However Times of Swaziland’s Saturday’s paper, Swazi News, published a possibly risky but commendable editorial on April 20 2013 in defence of freedom of speech. (Risky insofar as it could be interrupted as disrespectful to the judge’s ruling against The Nation.)

“The sun has set on media freedom in the country. For a long time the country’s politicians have been saying media practitioners are free to write on any issue. As a journalist I find it very scary to write this piece, I do no know what those in charge of the administration of justice will perceive it as but the sentence against Bheki Makhubu and The Nation is one of the harshest sentences to be handed down by our courts…

“A free media is the epitome of democracy and basic liberties. A country’s freedom is measured through the way the country treats its media. An independent press should mirror society and that helps to play the role of watchdogs where there are no political parties. The world measures a free society through the freedom of the press.”

The editorial concludes by saying “an axe” is now “hovering over media freedom, we all no longer have a say”.

The daily newspaper Times of Swaziland on Monday, April 22 2013, a day before the possible imprisonment of Makhubu, spoke in strong terms condemning the actions of the judiciary.

“It is no secret that we are in the midst of midst of a judicial crisis and have been for over two years. The crux of the matter is simply the question of whether or not the people of Swaziland trust their Judiciary to do right by them…

“In the context of the repeated failure to address the people’s concerns about fairness and transparency in the Judiciary, the decision to fine the editor E400,000 (or be jailed) can only be interpreted as an attempt to put a lid on complaints; to restrict the confidence of the Swazi people to speak up when they see a problem so that, together, we can fix it. Shooting the messenger is the best way to ensure that problems are never reported; thus remaining unresolved.”

(The total fine against Makhubu and The Nation is E400,000 ($US42,000) but half was suspended for five years providing The Nation does not step out of line – or ‘scandalise the courts’ – again.)

MISA-Swaziland supports and echoes all the voices speaking up for Bheki Makhubu and The Nation magazine; for these voices represent much more than support for one person and one magazine. They support the ideal (and constitutionally protected provision) of freedom of speech: that everyone has a right to speak his or her mind, and that Swazis should feel safe and protected when they do so.

MISA-Swaziland supports as many voices in the media as possible: citizen’s voices, government voices, civil society voices, business voices, royal voices, foreign voices, etc. – the list goes forever on.

MISA-Swaziland supports approving voices as much as we support dissenting voices. We support the idea that people have the right to question and the right to be questioned; the right to criticise and the right to be criticised; and, if it happens, the right to offend and the right to be offended.

We support modern, realistic, proportionate and non-criminal libel and defamation laws. We believe disclosure of information and news, in the public interest, should always be the norm, and suppression and censorship should always be the very rare exception.

In a constitutional democracy, of which Swaziland purports to be, people are free to dismiss and are free to be dismissed. People are free to ignore while others are free to ignore you – this gets close to the essence of freedom of speech.

May common sense and freedom of speech be defended, and may Bheki Makhubu continue his important work.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland) defends and promotes freedom of speech and assists journalists to go about their work. 

Editors’ forum condemns possible 2-year jail term for scribe

MISA-Swaziland Alert-update
18 April 2013

The Southern African Editors’ Forum (SAEF) has condemned a possible two-year jail term or US$20,000 fine imposed on Bheki Makhubu, an editor, by the courts in Swaziland.

Makhubu edits one of Swaziland’s few independent sources of news, The Nation magazine, published by Swaziland Independent Publishers. The magazine was found guilty of “contempt by scandalizing the court” following its publication of two articles in 2009 and 2010 that criticised Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.

On Wednesday, 17 April 2013, The Nation was ordered by Judge Bheki Maphalala to pay Emlangeni E200,000 (approximately US$20,000) within three days. If payment is not made, and an appeal by the magazine is dismissed, Makhubu will face two years in jail.

“The action against Makhubu is not only a violation of his own rights and media freedom. This is an act designed to intimidate the media in Swaziland and discourage them from being critical,” reads part of a statement released by SAEF and signed by its chairperson, Jovial Rantao.

The statement (attached) further states: “As a member of the African Union and Southern African Development Community, Swaziland should honour and respect the existing conventions and protocols on freedom of expression.

“Makhubu did not commit any crime and should not have been in court in the first place. We call for the conviction and sentence against Makhubu to be set aside to allow him to carry on with his work without fear of arrest.”

According to a High Court of Swaziland judgment sheet dated 17 April 2013, under the title Criminal case no: 53/2010, Judge Bheki Maphalala said that “failing payment of the fine of E200,000 (Two hundred thousand Emalangeni) within three days of this Order, in respect of both respondents, the second respondent [Bheki Makhubu] will be committed to prison forthwith for a period of two years”.

Secretary-General of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum, Jabu Matsebula, said he was “shocked” at the ruling against The Nation, adding that it is one of the heaviest fines ever handed down in the kingdom.

“It will certainly have a chilling effect on the press and on citizens constitutional rights to freedom of expression,” he said.

The summary of Justice Maphalala’s ruling mentions the “right to freedom of expression and opinion” and says “judges and courts are open to criticism provided that the criticism is fair and legitimate and does not exceed accepted boundaries”. In this case, however, the judge told The Nation it was “guilty of contempt by scandalizing the court”.

Meanwhile, The Nation has since instructed its lawyer to lodge a speedy appeal in the Supreme Court.

MISA continues to follow this development in Swaziland and will be issuing updates.

For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director

misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Editor faces 2 years in jail for criticising judge

MISA-Swaziland Alert
18 April 2013

One of Swaziland’s few independent source of news, The Nation magazine, has been found guilty of “contempt by scandalizing the court” following its publication of two articles in 2009 and 2010 that criticised Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.

Editor of the monthly magazine, Bheki Makhubu, and the its publisher, Swaziland Independent Publishers, were on Wednesday (17 April 2013) ordered to pay Emlangeni E200,000 (approximately US$20,000) within three days. If payment is not made, and an appeal by the magazine is dismissed, Makhubu will be sentenced to two years in jail.

According to a High Court of Swaziland judgment sheet dated 17 April 2013, under the title Criminal case no: 53/2010, Judge Bheki Maphalala said that “failing payment of the fine of E200,000 (Two hundred thousand Emalangeni) within three days of this Order, in respect of both respondents, the second respondent [Bheki Makhubu] will be committed to prison forthwith for a period of two years”.

The two Nation articles in question – published in November 2009 and in December 2010 – praised Judge Thomas Masuku for his dissenting opinion against two other supreme courts judges in cases dealing with evictions on land held by King Mswati III.

Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, a veteran journalist and current national director of the Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland), called the judgment “deeply disappointing” and an “assault to media freedom and free speech”.

Hlatshwayo, who is also a director and founding member of The Nation magazine (and therefore himself liable, along with Makhubu, to pay the US$20,000 fine) said:

The Nation is the only publication in Swaziland that speaks truth to power and is the voice of the voiceless in a country that is fast becoming a police state. The fine imposed by the judge is also a total clampdown on media freedom – it sends a strong and disturbing signal to the already censored newspapers and broadcast media.”

Secretary-General of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum, Jabu Matsebula, said he was “shocked” at the ruling against The Nation, adding that it is one of the heaviest fines ever handed down in the kingdom.

“It will certainly have a chilling effect on the press and on citizens constitutional rights to freedom of expression,” Matsebula said.

Speaking to MISA-Swaziland, Makhubu – who is also a law student at the University of South Africa – said “today is a sad day for Constitutionalism in Swaziland”. He said he was still “taking it all in” and admitted to feeling “a bit numb”.

However, despite the ruling of criminal contempt against him and the very likely prospect of going to jail for two years, and despite speaking through obvious shock, he said he is “still a great believer in the Swazi constitution”.

The summary of Justice Maphalala’s ruling mentions the “right to freedom of expression and opinion” and says “judges and courts are open to criticism provided that the criticism is fair and legitimate and does not exceed accepted boundaries”. In this case, however, the judge told The Nation it was “guilty of contempt by scandalizing the Court”.

The Nation has since instructed its lawyer to lodge a speedy appeal in the Supreme Court.

MISA continues to follow this development in Swaziland and will be issuing updates.

For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director

misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Media complaints commission open for business

MISA-Swaziland Alert
12 April 2013

A media complaints commission for print news is now operating in Swaziland, after almost ten years of planning and discussion. Members of the public can now contact a media ombudsman who, along with a panel, will decide whether corrective action should be taken or the complaint should be taken to mediation.

“It’s a good thing,” says Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, national director at the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland). “At least now people will have their complaints and grievances addressed.” Hlatshwayo also said if all goes to plan it will show that the media is now accountable to the people.

It is thought that the media complaints commission (MCC) has begun operating now because the government has threatened to pass a slew of communications bills before their term ends in August 2013; a provision in one of the bills might lead to a statutory complaints council if there is no operating complaints council in place – a scenario most people in the media want to avoid.

The newly appointed ombudsman is Jabu Matsebula, who is currently serving as secretary general of the Swaziland Editor’s Forum and is a former United Nations communications officer in Swaziland. People can contact Matsebula to lodge their complaints via email (ombudsman@realnet.co.sz) or via phone, or can arrange to meet him in person at the MISA-Swaziland office.

The MCC will remain in an ‘introductory phase’ at MISA-Swaziland until December 2013, at which point the print media houses, who are helping to fund the operation, will decide if they want make the commission permanent. MISA-Swaziland is assisting the MCC with its overheads during this introductory phase.

“It’s a very important development given [the MCC] has been in the works for a decade,” said Matsebula. The new ombudsman said it is important not only because it will allow mediation to take place where necessary, but also because a structure is now in place that will give confidence to people who feel they have been wronged by the media, or simply allow people the opportunity to correct misinformation.

For comments or queries, please contact:
VuyisileHlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director

misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Suspended editors reinstated

MISA-Swaziland Alert
26 March 2013

The board of directors at the Swazi Observer Newspaper Group have reinstated controversially suspended editors, Alec Lushaba and Thulani Thwala. The reinstatement comes eight months after the pair was suspended by then managing director of the group, Alpheous Nxumalo, for allegedly not following the founding mandate of the newspaper group.

The pair was accused of continuously publishing negative stories about Kind Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy. They are said to have ignored repeated warnings about the ‘negative coverage’ with the final straw being their newspapers’ coverage of attempts by Swaziland to secure a (Emlangeni) E10-billion (approximately US$1-billion) bailout from the government of neighbouring South Africa.

“This [the coverage] was not only sensational, but very damaging in the light of the political tensions it would create and was also a source of embarrassment to His Majesty,” remarked Absalom Themba Dlamini, maging director of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, King Mswati III’s conglomerate which owns the Swazi Observer Newspaper Group.

However, a statement issued last week by the board chair, Sthofeni Ginindza, said “there was no sufficient reason for the suspension of the Swazi Observer (daily) and Weekend Observer editors.”

The Swaziland Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) has commended the reinstatement of the editors.

“The job security of journalists should be respected just like all other professionals who are treated with dignity and held in high esteem. The unjustifiable suspension and dismissal of journalists in media houses should be strongly condemned when it happens,” MISA-Swaziland said in a statement.

For comments or queries, please contact:
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, MISA-Swaziland National Director
misa.nd@realnet.co.sz

Access to information and studying journalism in Swaziland – both difficult

MISA-Swaziland Analysis
21 February 2013

The Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland heard that His Majesty’s government recently labeled journalism a ‘non-priority area’. Journalism and mass communication students at the University of Swaziland, it follows, would no longer receive any financial assistance from the government.

In the past journalism students might be eligible for a government scholarship, helping them shoulder the economic burden. It is understood that one year’s tuition for the university’s journalism degree is about E13,000 ($US1,440). In addition to paying tuition fees, students require at least E8,000 a year for rent ($US880), and then money for living on top of that, say E15,000 ($US1,660). In total, therefore, the bare minimum needed per year for one Swazi journalism student is about E36,000 ($US4,000).

The Institute, a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech, also heard an unfortunate story about a journalism student struggling to pay her tuition fees. A talented and enthusiastic student who has fought tooth and nail to get herself this far (2nd semester of 2nd year journalism studies) was about to drop out owing to poverty and official indifference.

She needed E6,000 ($US660) to pay the balance of this year’s tuition fees. After exhausting all other avenues to raise the funds – including offering to work for free at a local newspaper where she’d already volunteered during school holidays if they loaned her the money; and writing pleading letters to various government departments – the 20-year-old student tells of approaching the king’s office, where big money and real power reside.

Swaziland, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique, is often described as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy. King Mswati III has ruled since 1986. A constitution was introduced in 2005 but the king (and, it is said, the king’s mother – known as the ‘Queen Mother’) hold ultimate authority in a land devastated by poverty and AIDS.

Médecins Sans Frontières, an international health organisation, reported that life expectancy had halved in Swaziland from 60 years-of-age in the 1990s to 31 in 2007. The twin epidemics of AIDS and tuberculosis are the main killers, said MSF.

The journalism student says the local newspaper went quiet on her loan offer, and she heard nothing back from government. At the king’s office (where she left a light-brown A4 envelope containing academic transcripts, a letter urging for help and her parents’ death certificates) she explained her story to a front desk secretary.  The student says she never heard back from the king’s office.

Before knowing all this it might be easy to simply tell students to get a part time job and ‘suck it up’. It might also be easy for well-meaning international aid agencies and big ‘multilateral’ donor organisations to hijack the student’s poverty, incorporate said poverty into foreign-drafted agendas, drown her in pity and ‘training workshops’, then present her a meaningless certificate and pretend all is okay. The workshop has been held – tick the box. The project has been completed. Another tick. Has the donor organisation got its logo and photo in the paper? Indeed. Has the student been helped? Agh… hmm.

In a kingdom where youth unemployment is said to be over 50 percent, and in a labour market where it is near impossible to fire anyone – or offer ‘voluntary retirement packages’ to bloated civil servants – that easy refrain, ‘get a job’, or ‘let’s run a workshop’, doesn’t sound so informed, realistic, or, ultimately, compassionate.

When the Swazi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) tried to verify the young student’s story, and also to verify if journalism students are currently without any government assistance, all that was found was bureaucratic confusion, unanswered calls and messages, and fax lines masquerading as phone lines.

One source in the ministry of education said as far as she knew journalism students are “not covered”. She then suggested contacting the scholarships director, located in the ministry of labour. The scholarships director’s phone was lonely; the call kept bouncing to an annoyed receptionist, who passed on the number of the department of labour principal secretary. The principal secretary failed to answer several calls. The scholarship’s director never returned the call, after several messages were left. Messages were also left for the minister of education and minister of labour to return calls, to no avail.

MISA-Swaziland calls on the government to clearly state whether journalism students at the University of Swaziland receive any financial assistance. Or, as has been reported, journalism is a ‘non-priority area’? And, if it is a non-priority area, MISA-Swaziland asks the government why it has been labeled such. If the answer is because help for journalism studies – as well as several other university courses – is not affordable, MISA asks the minister of education and labour: Not affordable when compared against what? Compared, perhaps, to a country of hungry, illiterate students? Or, perhaps, when weighed against the ruling elite’s unearned royalties? MISA-Swaziland asks what the money is being spent on (or lost on due to corruption) instead of helping university students?

Swaziland, according to the World Bank, is a ‘lower middle income country’ – this means that there is money in the nation. Swaziland has a GNI per capita of E30,000 ($US3,330). Gross National Income (GNI) per capita is total income of a nation divided by the total number of people in the nation.

Therefore, as a lower middle income nation, if current Swazi wealth was more equitably created and spread, a regular citizen each year might take home a sum closer to E30,000 – about E2,500 each month.

One wonders how much, in reality, each Swazi takes home each month? And this is before the economy has, one day, shifted from the grasp of a kleptocratic elite to the open pastures lying in wait.

But. If the economy is already back on track, as was said by the minister of finance and dutifully reported by the local media, why is money not flowing into ‘productive areas’ like helping university students to finish their studies?

The short answer is negligence, incompetence and corruption. The Swazi Weekend Observer, a weekly newspaper, on 16 February 2013 reported the following headlines: ‘King rallies nation to work even harder to resuscitate economy’ on the front page; ‘Scholarship official arrested for corruption’ on page 7; ‘Joblessness: youths scramble to sell sand’ on page 14.

The Times of Swaziland, a privately owned daily, in an editorial on 20 February 2013 says: “The revelation by Labour Minister Lufto Dlamini that around 270 students at [the University of Swaziland] have not yet received their scholarship allowances due to corruption has penetrated the very bedrock of this society… For almost fifty years, Swazis have struggled to go to school, cold, hungry, barefoot, walking kilometres in the dark to get to school on time. Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini was one such pupil and has spoken before of how he strained his eyes studying by candlelight before electricity…”

That same young student who strained his eyes in the hope of a better future is now the unelected prime minister, appointed by His Majesty King Mswati. He, the prime minister, is at the centre of several alleged corruption scandals and last year ignored the parliament’s constitutional decision that should have seen him sacked.

The young journalism student, who was a breath away from falling into the cracks, has since been loaned the money she needs to finish university. A privately owned magazine, The Nation, lent her the money and in return the student will write stories for the magazine until the loan is paid off: gaining journalism experience from seasoned reporters while finishing her studies. The deal was made possible because the director of MISA-Swaziland is a founding member of The Nation magazine. Now, when the student has finished university she stands a fighting chance of landing a journalism job.

The Swaziland chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa is a media watchdog that promotes freedom of speech.