21 December 2012

Swaziland: Misa Backs 'Free Radio Airwaves' Call

Photo: Faatimah Hendricks/AllAfrica
File photo:Members of the press

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Mbabane — Swaziland's only privately-owned newspaper has called for the liberalisation of the Kingdom's radio airwaves.

In an editorial titled 'Free the airwaves', the Times of Swaziland notes that radio is the dominant medium of communication in Africa, yet in Swaziland - a small, landlocked country in Southern Africa bordered by South Africa and Mozambique - options remain limited.

"Radio is dynamic, alive to the issues of the day, changeable as the fashions. In Africa, the age of radio is still very much alive and strong. But not in Swaziland."

The editorial, which appeared on 18 December 2012, suggests Swaziland should open up its airwaves and allow more players into the government-controlled 'market'.

"One very simple way that this country could tap into its creative potential - especially economically - would be to allow anyone who wanted to own a radio station to do so.

"Imagine how a health-focused rural radio station would benefit local communities; imagine if every Tinkhundla centre (traditional constituency) had their own radio for community announcements and educational programmes."

In Swaziland, where music is part of the national fabric, the Times editorial dares to "imagine how the music industry would blossom and nurture our national talent" if the airwaves were freed from stringent and arbitrary state controls.

It should be noted, however, that the Times does not mention stringent and arbitrary government controls as the reason why the airwaves remain stifled.

Nevertheless, the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Swaziland (MISA-Swaziland) applauds the Times of Swaziland for taking a position on this issue.

As it stands, there is one national radio station in Swaziland - the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service (SBIS). It acts more as a propaganda tool for the government and traditional authorities than as the public broadcaster is purports to be. There are some worthwhile health programs that air on SBIS, however, on the whole, it a long way from a true and honest public broadcaster that is free to question, criticise, educate, and entertain.

Earlier this year the minister for communications told Swazi citizens they must first clear - or approve - their opinions with their respective chiefs before approaching the radio station.

The Swazi Observer, a state-owned newspaper, reported in August 2012 that "the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service is not allowed to broadcast any public service announcement (PSA) that does not support government's agenda.

"This is contained in the Public Service Announcement Guidelines of the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services (SBIS).

"The guidelines were tabled in the House of Assembly by Minister of Information, Communication and Technology Winnie Nxumalo on Monday.

"They are to be observed by both the radio station and the public as they are meant for smooth and professional service to the nation.

"Part of the guidelines read, 'Any PSA that is negative or does not support government's agenda shall not be allowed.'"

The Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern (MISA-Swaziland), a regional non-governmental organisation that promotes freedom of speech, notes that the actions taken by the minister of communications contradict section 24 (1) of Swaziland's Constitution: "A person has a right of freedom of expression and opinion."

More specifically, Section 24 (2) protects "freedom of the press and other media", and Section 24 (2)(c) protects the "freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons)".

While freedom of expression is protected under the earlier clauses of Section 24, in practice this freedom is often snatched away by leaders and bureaucrats who invoke Section 24 (3)(a). This latter section permits speech to be curtailed in the name of "defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health".

MISA believes criticism of the "government's agenda", as well as criticism of higher authorities to be in the public interest; for trust in the authorities can only come after that trust has been tested. And MISA further believes that interpreting the Constitution requires emphasis to be placed on certain clauses, thereby allowing a more reasonable course of action

In this case, let MISA state its belief that freedom of speech, in all but legitimate cases of libel and defamation, trumps all other liberties. And freedom of speech, in all but the most rare cases, trumps the often trite defences of public morality or public order, etc. In reality, those who invoke the 'public morality' clause, for instance, simply want to suppress information that will embarrass the wealthy and powerful.

Of course there are rare moments when information should not be disclosed - if that information will cause huge harm, for instance, or the information will cause great pain to a suffering victim. But all factors need to be weighed against each other, and in all cases disclosure should be the default option, always bearing in mind that the public has a right to information.

Again, there are fine lines between hate speech, offensive speech, and sincerely held false opinions. And similarly, there are many shades of truth. The best way to find out what is what is to have an open and frank discussion.

To suppress legitimate speech in the name of vaguely worded clauses does nothing to bring Swaziland into the modern world. The only way to work out what terms such as 'public morality' or 'public order' mean is to freely discuses their meanings.

As Christmas approaches, MISA-Swaziland looks back on a bad year for freedom of expression in the kingdom. Sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy, in many ways, is incompatible with universal notions of freedom of expression - even though the country is a signatory to most regional and international conventions that protect freedom of expression.

Despite this, MISA-Swaziland remains somewhat optimistic that 2013 will be a better year for freedom and democracy. National elections are to be scheduled for the second half of next year. The world will be keeping an eye on proceedings to see if democracy becomes more than a name. And it would seem that Swazis are beginning to demand more from their unelected leaders. Hunger, poverty and AIDS are taking a toll.

One way to help give Swazis a voice on matters that concern them most is to open up the airwaves. As American civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr said, "riots are the voice of the unheard". These words ring hollow in the ears of leaders at their own peril.

And a question that Swazis might ask themselves over the festive season, as we sip on a beer and search the dial for more radio stations, is who actually owns the airwaves? If Swazi taxpayer money pays for the radio station, why is it not a true public broadcaster? Why does public money protect state interests and only allow some senior government voices free rein? Why doesn't the radio operate in the public interest? Why aren't Swazis getting what they pay for? And why aren't Swazi citizens allowed a voice to speak on their own radio station?

In short, why pay for something that you don't own and control?

MISA-Swaziland agrees with the Times editorial when it says: "We have a nation of creative, talented people bursting to express themselves and to tackle the ills of this country, such as poverty.

"Let's give them more platforms to do so."

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File photo:Members of the press

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