30 January 2001

Swaziland: Swazi State Newspaper Relaunches

Mbabane — SWAZILAND's controversial State-funded newspaper, the Swazi Observer, relaunched itself on Monday exactly one-year after it was closed down.

New managing editor Jabu Matsebula said Tuesday that the newspaper would only resume daily publication later in the month once its new 30-member editorial team was in place.

The Observer was unexpectedly closed by its board in February 2000, just minutes before going to press at the height of an investigation into government mismanagement and the kingdom's apparent inability to uproot transnational drug smuggling syndicates.

Swaziland police commissioner Edgar Hillary attempted to force senior reporters to reveal their sources shortly before the closure, while highprofile leaders condemned the Observer's growing criticism of government as "unSwazi".

Observer board chairman Jameson Gule would only say at the time that the newspaper was making a loss and was being closed for economic reasons. He declined to say why the order was issued shortly before going to press.

Matsebula stressed on Friday that the 'new' Observer had been restructured and was being run by a completely new team.

"As far as I am aware, the old Observer simply could not cut it commercially. So, when it ran into political problems, it was easy to say it was not worth anything," said Matsebula.

"The paper has been restructured by [international auditors] KPMG to be a viable media business."

Matsebula was unable to say whether a charter of editorial independence would be adopted, and declined to be drawn on whether the Observer's six-member board would be involved in setting day-to-day editorial decisions.

"In my opinion, editorial independence has always been a matter of keeping your nose clean as a professional. We are going to run a clean and professional operation here, and I am sure this will be respected," he said.

The Observer is owned by Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a parastatal holding company with diverse interests held in trust of the nation or roughly one million people by absolute monarch King Mswati III.

The planned relaunch sparked outraged by former staffers, who are demanding they be reappointed and compensated for their dismissal and lost earnings.

Observer Crisis Committee chairman Hanson Ngwenya said on Friday the 80 axed journalists had lodged civil action against the newspaper and would seek an interdict against its publication unless they were rehired.

"The closure was blatant political oppression of the media. We want to force that concession and be paid compensation, or we will be forced to prove in court how they lied," said Ngwenya.

Matsebula, a Humphrey Fellow and veteran Swazi newsman, was headhunted for the Observer post from the United Nations Development Programme, where he served as a media development consultant and helped restructure the kingdom's national journalism association.

Matsebula co-founded the kingdom's first Internet cafe in 1996 and previously edited Swaziland's only independent newspaper, the Times of Swaziland, before a stint as assignment editor for the South African Broadcast Corporation in the Mpumalanga provincial capital of Nelspruit.

Gule, who is also a Tibiyo executive, remains chairman of the Observer board of directors. - African Eye News Service

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