Lawyers in Swaziland and an international human rights group have jointly called for media freedom in the kingdom to be respected.
In a submission to the United Nations they also call for an end to media censorship in the kingdom.
They also call for more independent newspapers and media houses to be allowed to operate in Swaziland, where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
The call comes jointly from CIVICUS, a global network of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world, and Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland) (LHRS), a non-partisan group of lawyers that advocates for the respect of human rights and promotes good governance, the rule of law and democracy.
The report is to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Swaziland that is to investigate Swaziland’s record on human rights next April and May 2016.
The report listed a number of media freedom violations in Swaziland over recent years.
In the report they stated the Swazi Government, which is not elected but appointed by the King, ‘strictly controls freedom of expression and the media’.
They added, ‘Reporting on royal and political matters is severely restricted. Further, regular threats emanating from senior government officials and the royal family to journalists also lead to government censorship and self-censorship by the media further curtailing democratic freedoms’.
The report detailed a number of media freedom violations.
It stated, ‘On 28 April 2014, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi threatened the Managing Editor of the Swazi Observer, Mbongeni Mbingo over reports on court proceedings in the case involving the editor of Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.
‘In the 30 March 2014 edition of the newspaper, Mbongeni expressed concerns that Bheki and Thulani were in jail even though the prosecuting team had not concluded its investigations. The Chief Justice ordered Mbongeni to stop reporting on the case and warned that he would be subjected to the same fate as the accused.
‘The Swazi Observer is owned by King Mswati’s business holding Tibiyo taka Ngwane but the newspaper had been reporting regularly on the case. After the threats from the Chief Justice the newspaper adopted a more cautious approach in its reporting on the case.
‘On 17 April 2013, Bheki Makhubu, editor of Nation magazine was found guilty of contempt of court for “scurrilous abuse of the Chief Justice” based on articles he wrote in November 2009 and February 2010 in which he criticised Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi.
‘One of the articles commended Justice Thomas Masuku for his views in cases which focused on the evictions of Swazis from lands held by the King in contrast to views held by two other Supreme Court Judges. The other article criticised Justice Ramodibedi over comments he had made. Bheki Makhubu was handed a fine of E200,000 (approximately US$14,750) and informed that he would serve a two year jail term if he failed to pay the fine within three days.
‘On 30 May 2014, he won an appeal with the Supreme Court and the sentence was reduced to three months fully suspended on condition that he is not convicted of any offence of scandalising the court for a period of three years.
‘On 17 and 18 March 2013 human rights defender Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu were arrested and charged with “scandalising the judiciary” and for being “in contempt of court” after they published articles critical of the Swazi judiciary.
‘In February 2014, Thulani wrote an article in the Nation magazine titled “where the law has no place” and in March 2014 Bheki wrote an article titled “speaking my mind”. Both articles were critical of the arrest of government vehicle inspector Bhantshana Vincent Gwebu.
‘Thulani Maseko is a member of the Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland) and Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. Bheki Makubu is a journalist and editor of Nation magazine. They were both sentenced to two years in jail on 25 July 2014 without bail. On 30 June 2015 the Supreme Court ordered the release of both journalists on the basis that they had not received a fair trial.
‘The Supreme Court argued that the trial judge was one of the persons criticised in the articles and had not recused himself from the case.
‘On 15 January 2014, the government-controlled Swazi Observer newspaper suspended its editor Thulani Thwala and weekend editor Alec Lushaba after they were accused of failing to adhere to the mandate of the newspaper by publishing negative news stories about the King.
The journalists were accused of failing to heed several warnings not to publish damaging reports about the King. Prior to the suspension, they published reports indicating that the Swazi government had solicited a financial bailout from South Africa. Eight months after their suspension, the Board of Directors of the Swazi Observer Newspaper Group reinstated them.
‘The Swazi Observer newspaper is controlled by the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane conglomerate, which is owned by the King. News items published are highly censored.
‘In January 2012, Musa Ndlangamandla was relieved of his duties as Chief Editor of the Swazi Observer newspaper after publishing interviews in his Asikhulume column of leaders of pro-democracy movements in Swaziland.
Prior to that he had published a report about the expropriation of state land by Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini. The police confiscated his computer and in February he was forced to flee to South Africa after attempts by security forces to arrest and charge him under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
‘On 11 April 2012, Tumaole Mohlaoli and Meshack Dube, journalists from the private South African television channel e-TV, were detained by the Swazi authorities at a road block in Oshoek and their passports and equipment were seized after the authorities accused them of not having the proper accreditation to cover events commemorating the 39th anniversary of King Sobhuza II’s 1973 decree which outlawed political parties in Swaziland.’
CIVICUS and LHRS made the following recommendations to the UN working group.
‘The environment in which the media operates in Swaziland should be opened up to allow the registration and operation of more independent newspapers and media houses.
‘The government should stop using the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act to impede media freedoms.
‘Swazi authorities should respect and fulfil the right to freedom of expression and stop the practice of intimidating and persecuting journalists using unlawful legal processes.
‘Journalists and media representatives should be protected by the law at all times.
‘Public figures should stop threatening journalists and desist from interfering in state-owned newspapers.
‘Obsolete laws that restrict freedom of expression such as Sedition and Subversive Activities Act Suppression of Terrorism Act should be reviewed and repealed.
‘The Swazi authorities should stop censoring the contempt of newspapers and refrain from interfering in the editorial policies of newspapers to eliminate censorship.’
GOVT HAS TOTAL CONTROL OF TV NEWS