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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

PRESS FREEDOM: NOTHING TO CELEBRATE

This week we mark World Media Freedom Day (3 May) and traditionally we look back over the past 12 months at the state of the press in Swaziland.

This year there have been two main themes of media freedom in Swaziland: censorship of the mainstream journalism and government attempts to silence social media, such as Facebook.

Most mainstream media in Swaziland, ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, are state controlled. Censorship on state TV and radio is common and one of Swaziland’s two daily newspapers is in effect owned by King Mswati. The Times of Swaziland is only one independent newspaper group in the kingdom and this censors itself when reporting about the Swazi royal family. Its publisher Paul Loftler is on record saying that Swaziland does not need democracy.

Censorship

Censorship in Swaziland comes in two kinds: that which is imposed on media by the state and the self-censorship that the media houses impose upon themselves.

Of course, censorship is hard to detect because by its very nature it is about keeping things out of the public domain and if it works successfully we never know about it. However, there have been times in the past year when the veil of secrecy has slipped a little.

Human Rights Watch reported in February 2012 that Journalists and the media faced continued threats and attacks by the authorities and that self-censorship in media was widespread. 

In a report it said, ‘The government has passed draconian security legislation such as the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, which severely curtails the enjoyment of freedom of expression, among other rights, and allows for extensive imprisonment without the option of a fine if one is found guilty. The act has been used to harass activists and conduct searches of their homes and offices.’

It reported, the Government prohibited the privately-owned Times newspaper from continuing to write about Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi, who had caused an uproar by suspending Justice Thomas Masuku and levelling 12 charges against him.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) reported that security police ‘stormed the Times office on 12 July 2011, serving the editor with a court order to stop publishing any articles about the chief justice. After scrutiny, the newspaper's editorial team found that the court order had no case number.’

MISA said, ‘In addition, the Times of Swaziland was not given an opportunity to defend itself before the High Court. The editorial team decided to go ahead with the articles and risk annoying the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). The attorney general, Majahenkaba Dlamini, is said to be angry with the Times of Swaziland for failing to respect court orders and has “declared war” against the newspaper.’ 

In the same month, the Times was threatened with a contempt of court action for publishing reports about Chief Justice Ramodibedi.

The Times received orders from the Swazi High Court barring it from reporting that the Law Society of Swaziland wanted Ramodibedi sacked immediately. The Law Society listed transgressions that lawyers believed he had made.

The Times went ahead and published.

In July 2011, the Sowetan newspaper from South Africa was held by police at the Swaziland border and copies were confiscated, because it carried an article critical of Ramodibedi.

Copies of the newspaper that is usually freely available to buy in Swaziland were taken at the Ngwenya Border Post. 

The Swazi News, a companion newspaper to the Times, reported that according to one of the distributors of the Sowetan, police officers forcefully confiscated copies of the newspaper which were going to various news-stands in the kingdom.

State-controlled radio, SBIS, was also censored. In July 2011, the plug was pulled on a phone-in programme when listeners started criticising the government for its handling of the economy. 

Percy Simelane, the boss of Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services (SBIS) at the time and now the Swazi Government’s official spokesperson, personally stormed the radio studio and cut the programme.

SBIS is state-controlled and news and current affairs broadcasts are heavily censored. Simelane said the programme did not have permission to discuss the topic.

In a welcome example of independent reporting, the Swazi Observer, the newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati III, revealed that veteran announcer Veli Simelane, ‘invited listeners to call and share their views on whether South Africa should give Swaziland a loan and generally their take on the economic crisis in the country’.

‘Veli shelved a scheduled programme for the call-in. He was meant to host Happy Birthdays phone-in programme. He pleaded with listeners to ignore birthday wishes but share their views on the loan application.

‘Indeed, listeners jumped at the opportunity. A number of callers slammed government for reckless spending and felt South Africa should not extend the loan to Swaziland until certain issues were addressed in the country.’

Unfortunately, the Observer censored itself in its report and refused to tell readers details of what listeners had said. ‘Some of the things that were said by the callers cannot be repeated because of their sensitivity,’ it said.

Simelane confirmed to the Observer that he had stopped the programme. ‘In newspapers you have editors who check the stories before they are published. The same applies on radio. Part of my duties is to ensure that all that is aired goes through a vetting process. I was merely editing a programme that got to be hosted without following procedure,’ the Observer reported him saying.

In June 2011, Barnabas Dlamini, Swaziland's PM, told journalists to stop reporting about the land scandal his name was attached to. He told media that the King had pronounced on the matter and he must be obeyed, he said.

Self-censorship

If it is difficult to detect cases of censorship, it possibly even harder to detect self-censorship because we cannot be sure what has deliberately been left out of the media completely.

We can, however, sometimes see when articles that have been published omit information that may be critical of the King. We know this because it is possible in some cases to compare the versions of the story published inside Swaziland with those published in mainstream media online. We also have posts made to social media sites as alternative sources.

The Times of Swaziland group of newspapers that comprises the Times itself, the Swazi News and the Times Sunday was found out on a number of occasions during the past 12 months.

In March 2012, in an exclusive report, the Times revealed that the ‘whistle blower’ website Wikileaks was canvassing for people to leak information to it about Swaziland.

The Times said that Wikileaks asked people to send it, ‘Intelligence memos from the Ministry of Defence or Police about the pro-democracy organisation, PUDEMO.’ The People’s United Democratic Movement is a banned organisation in Swaziland. 

But what the Times did not report was that a higher priority for Wikileaks was to be sent the ‘Expense accounts of King Mswati, the Queen Mother and the King's wives.’

In the past Wikileaks published a number of cables from the US Embassy in Swaziland that have been critical of King Mswati, including one from Ambassador Earl Irvine stating that the King is ‘not intellectually well developed’, ‘is not a reader’, is ‘imbalanced’ and has a ‘lack of wisdom’. 

In December 2011, the Times censored itself in a report that a royal aide had been fined five cattle and banned from royal households for ‘handling a certain matter’ without first consulting traditional prime minister TV Mtetwa first.

However, a radical independent newspaper, the Swazi Mirror, had reported in the previous month that Inkhosikati laDube, the 12th wife of King Mswati III, had been chucked out of the royal palace by Mtetwa and his henchmen.

The Mirror reported that laDube sent an aide to the Ministry of Home Affairs to change her name to Nonthando Moosa. It was this aide who was later fined and banned.

In September 2011, the Times Sunday censored an article by its regular columnist Musa Holphe, of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, a prodemocracy NGO, that linked the King and Royal advisors to a possible fortune Barnabas Dlamini, the Swazi Prime Minister, could have made from owning shares in MTN, the monopoly cellphone operator in Swaziland. 

Meanwhile, the Swazi Observer, although not caught self-censoring, was quick to apologise after it published an obituary which included reference to the ‘romantic life’ of Inkhosikati LaMasuku and King Sobhuza II. This innocuous article was too much for the Royal Family who demanded and got an abject apology in March 2012, for bringing ‘the institution of the Monarchy into disrepute’.

The Observer restated its commitment, ‘to its mission statement which is to protect the institution of the Monarchy in particular His Majesty King Mswati III and the Queen Mother and to promote the image and the interests of the Kingdom of Swaziland without prejudice to the people of Swaziland’. 

Social media

A number of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook sites have been created in recent years, many with the express purpose of furthering the campaign for democracy in Swaziland. 

Many of them originate in the kingdom and others are based outside. They are the only freely-available source of news and comment critical of the King that is available inside Swaziland.

In March 2012, Swaziland’s Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze threatened to use the law against Facebook and Twitter users who said bad things about the kingdom.

This was not the only time the Swazi Government had claimed it would attack Internet users. In May 2011 Nathaniel Mahluza, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology, said the police had specially-trained officers to track down people who used Facebook to criticise the Swazi Government. 

The Times reported that Nathaniel Mahluza, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology, admitted that the government was worried by what the newspaper called ‘unsavoury comments’ about the kingdom being published on the Internet.

It is not clear what specific law the Facebook users were supposed to have broken, but in Swaziland free speech is severely curtailed, even though the Swazi Constitution allows for it.

The Times reported that Mahluza was responding to Public Accounts Committee Chairperson Thuli Dladla who said the insults on the kingdom were getting worse on Facebook. 

However, Hhukwini MP Mkhululi Dlamini said if the posts were made in Swaziland it was possible to catch them. 

Dladla, however advised, Mahluza against revealing how they worked on these issues with the police.

Mahluza said although they had trained officers who worked hand in hand with the police to catch the culprits, it was proving very difficult to catch them.

So, the past 12months have not been good for media freedom in Swaziland and there is no reason to suppose things will improve greatly in the next 12, particularly since Paul Loffler, the publisher of the kingdom’s only newspapers that are free of the monarchy’s control went on record saying Swaziland did not need democracy.

He was quoted by the South African Sunday Times, saying the Swazi cities are clean and the local municipalities work fine, so there’s little to complain about.

He was quoted saying, ‘Swaziland doesn’t need democracy. We’ve never had a genocide, we’ve never nationalised farms, our municipalities run like clockwork, the cities are clean, there are no potholes - or not many - and we have little violent crime.’

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