Swaziland: Top Judge Attacks Press Freedom

Swaziland's Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi has attacked the kingdom's only independent daily newspaper and forced it to apologise 'unreservedly' after it published criticisms of his handling of a contempt of court case.

But, although the Times of Swaziland has been gagged, international observers continue to criticise Ramodibedi for his actions.

One article published by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA ) called the case, 'the end of the road for the rule of law in Swaziland', the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.

The contempt of court case involves Bhantshana Gwebu, the Swazi Government's chief vehicle inspector.

Mantoe Phakathi, wrote on the OSISA website, 'In the latest shocking display of his utter contempt for the rule of law, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi sent Gwebu to prison for seven days for contempt of court on January 20 - having refused him the right to legal representation.'

Phakathi added, 'On Saturday January 18th, Gwebu - in his role as chief government vehicle inspector - charged and arrested, Vusi Tsela, for driving a government vehicle without authority. Now, Tsela happens to be the official driver for High Court judge, Esther Ota, and he had taken her to one of the elite schools in Mbabane so that she could buy her children's uniforms before classes resumed on January 21st.

'When Gwebu pounced and demanded to see the official documents that allowed Tsela to drive the car to this school on a Saturday, he discovered that Tsela did not have the right papers. He subsequently charged him and impounded the car, while Ota pleaded that she was on her way to court because she was the duty judge for the weekend and had just needed to run some personal errands before going to work.

'Needless to say, this affront to the judiciary could not be stomached - well not by Chief Justice Ramodibedi.'

Gwebu was rapidly issued with a warrant of arrest and handed himself in to police on Monday January 20.

Phakathi wrote, 'With astonishing speed - particularly given the glacial pace of many cases in Swaziland - Gwebu appeared before Ramodibedi in his chambers at the High Court on the very same day. And was then immediately taken off to jail, pending his hearing a week later.'

Phakathi added, 'Meanwhile, Ramodibedi himself is facing impeachment charges in his home country, Lesotho, where he was suspended from his position as Court of Appeal president. So it sadly comes as no surprise that Ramodibedi has bypassed the law in this latest case. Despite his position as the head of the judiciary, the law seems to be something that he can take or leave - depending on who is involved. Clearly, he believes that there is a group of powerful, influential people - not just the King and his mother - who are above the law of the land.

'But it still doesn't entirely explain why Gwebu is languishing for doing his job. The charges against the driver could easily have been dropped. Gwebu could have been given a talking to behind closed doors. But it's worth remembering that Gwebu once impounded Ramodibedi's official car for allegedly abusing it. Perhaps this is partly pay-back time for that.'

Journalist Ackel Zwane wrote in the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati, 'In his bravery Bhantshana went ahead to even seize Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi's vehicle while he was on an outside trip. Surely this did not please the giant legal eagle and this time around the warrant of arrest was issued by the grand CJ.'

When the Times of Swaziland ran a version of the story on its website, it attracted a number of critical comments from readers. Ramodibedi then demanded his apology from the newspaper, which is the only daily newspaper in the kingdom free of direct monarchical control.

In a front-page apology, that was not published online, the Times called the readers' comments 'contemptuous'. The newspaper said we, 'unreservedly apologise to the Honourable Chief Justice, as well as Her Ladyship Judge Ota and to the entire Judiciary.'

Journalists who criticise the judiciary are not tolerated by the judges in Swaziland. In April 2013 Bheki Makhubu the editor of the monthly magazine the Nation was convicted of criminal contempt of court after publishing two articles criticising the judiciary. He was fined E200,000 (US$22,000) by the High Court and told if he did not pay within three days he would immediately go to jail for two years. His sentence is on hold pending an appeal to the Swaziland Supreme Court.

Commenting on the Gwebu case, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Swaziland chapter, said, 'It is unclear if it was a specific comment that sparked the apology and retraction, or whether it was several of the comments. It is also unclear whether political pressure was put on the Times of Swaziland to issue the apology.'

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