2 February 2013

Swaziland: Misa Backs Govt Attack On 'Times'

press release

The government of Swaziland is aware that the media is acting irresponsibly.

Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology, Sikelela Dlamini, issued a statement on 30 January 2013, in which he criticises the Times of Swaziland Sunday, a weekly tabloid, for breaching not only its own code of ethics but also the country's Constitution.

The ministry was responding to an article published by the Times of Swaziland Sunday on 27 January 2013 under the headline 'The Naked Truth?'. The article chronicled the fallout between a Swazi diplomat based in London and her former Zimbabwean boyfriend.

He is allegedly trying to recover money from her, and because she allegedly refused - or didn't repay what he thought was the required amount - he posted a series of intimate and naked photos of her to Swazi diplomatic offices as well as posting the photos online.

It is a seemingly a simple yet messy case of blackmail. And it is not unreasonable to suggest that none of this should have entered the public domain in the first place.

However, the Times of Swaziland Sunday - published by the Times of Swaziland Group of Newspaper - ran a lopsided story and published a naked photo of the woman with her breasts, private parts and face blurred. The photo does not protect her identity nor does it respect her right to privacy, despite 'efforts' to the contrary.

The ICT ministry was "horrified" by the story and the photo, stating that freedom of expression could not be used to breach professional boundaries or used to overstep ethical or legislative limitations.

"The recent blatant publication of indecent photography of one of our female Citizens, who equally enjoys protective Constitutional provisions, has generated wide public outcry... while questioning the professional discretion of certain establishments [The Times of Swaziland], within the local press corps."

The Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) is the first to decry the endemic censorship in the kingdom, however on this issue, we acknowledge the position of government.

The ICT ministry may not have the finest record on matters of freedom of speech, but MISA-Swaziland must give credit where it is due. The government is invoking the media code of ethics and the Constitution as it was meant to be invoked: to protect people from degrading and inhuman treatment.

As it stands, in early 2013, there is no operating independent media complaints commission (MCC) in Swaziland. It only exists on paper, however after its 'launch' in mid-2011 it failed to get off the ground.

This commission has been in 'discussion phase' for ten years. MISA-Swaziland urges members of the MCC, Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ), and Swaziland Editors Forum (SEF) to push hard to get the MCC operating.

If there was an operating and trusted complaints commission, aggrieved or defamed citizens - such as the woman who has had her naked body unwittingly splashed into the public's view - could approach this organisation to seek an apology, resolution, or some other form of damages.

Moreover, with a self-regulatory 'mechanism' in place the government will be less inclined to introduce a statutory media tribunal.

The government has been telling the media to 'sort itself out' for a long time. MISA-Swaziland shares this sentiment, and will continue working with the media and the government to ensure progress is made.

National Director of MISA-Swaziland Vuyisile Hlatshwayo said the Times of Swaziland Sunday was "wrong" to run the story and publish the photo, thereby feeding into a former lover's blackmail plot.

"It is obscene," he said. "We have a constitution that should protect against this sort of thing. Article 18 speaks of 'protection from inhuman or degrading treatment'. In MISA's view, the publication of the photo is in direct violation of the Swaziland Constitution.

"The reason why this happens - unethical stories and photos get published - is because there is a lot repression and censorship when it comes to 'real' and 'hard' news, therefore the media has resorted to tabloid journalism, which thrives on scandals.

"In other words," Hlatshwayo continues, "it is this soft and superficial news which is increasingly creeping into our media. MISA urges the Swazi media to be courageous enough to tackle issues which are in the public interest, rather than focusing on scandals and stories of insignificance."

- Media Institute of Southern Africa - Swaziland Chapter

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