22 February 2013

Swaziland: Social Media Sites Promote Freedom

More people than ever before are using social media sites such as Facebook to oppose the undemocratic regime in Swaziland.

Research just published shows that people use the Internet to communicate with one another and share information and ideas about the campaign for democracy, bypassing the Swazi mainstream media which is heavily censored.

People who live inside the kingdom and those abroad join in the debates and share information about activities designed to bring attention to the human rights abuses in the kingdom, ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.

The research, published in Ecquid Novi African Journalism Studies, looked at a number of blogs, Facebook sites and a Google discussion group to study what they were publishing and see how people used them to share information.

Young people in Swaziland have been using the Internet not only to interact with one another but also using Facebook to 'influence opinion with a view to effecting change in Swaziland' and 'voice their anger at the established ruling regime'.

A survey of some of the most active sites showed they contained information about prodemocracy activities in Swaziland such as protest marches, the delivery of petitions to government ministries and strikes.

Unlike the mainstream media in Swaziland these sites also published material critical of King Mswati and the royal family.

The report suggests that the sites 'appear to have relatively small, but seemingly highly committed, participants as originators and/or readers'.

The report suggests that the social media sites have extended opportunities for people to share information and commentary about the need for democratic change in Swaziland, but they have not necessarily been an empowering force.

'It is clear that social media sites have extended the public sphere to offer opportunities for a wider range of people both in the country and outside it, to produce, distribute and exchange information and commentary about the kingdom - especially in the context of the need for political change. People speak in their own voices and are not mediated in the way mainstream media are in Swaziland.'

However, the research suggests, 'There is little evidence that social media sites are capable of becoming vehicles for actual change in Swaziland.'

It uses the example of the April 12 Uprising Facebook group from 2011 that had clearly-stated objectives to encourage an uprising in Swaziland along the lines of those witnessed during the 'Arab Spring' of 2011.

Despite a large interest online in the group's postings, it was unable to turn its aspirations for uprising into actual action on the streets.

The research speculates it was possible the April 12 Uprising Facebook site may have generated 'unrealistic excitement and anticipation on the part of the general population who became mere spectators, while the bulk of those who had generated the Facebook hype resided outside the country and could not coordinate activities on the ground to actuate their cyber aspirations'.

The research concludes by suggesting the uprising failed because the factors necessary for revolution in Swaziland were absent.

'Among such conditions are that the regime must appear irredeemably unjust or inept, and must be viewed as a threat to the country's future, and that the political elite should be alienated from the state to the extent that they are no longer willing to defend it.

'In addition, broad-based mobilisation across social-economic classes must follow; and international powers must either refuse to step in and defend the government or prevent it from using maximum force to defend itself.'

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