4 April 2014

Swaziland: Social Media First With the News

Social media in Swaziland are beating mainstream media to the punch in the coverage of the arrest and jailing of a magazine editor and a human rights lawyer.

Bheki Makhubu, editor of the Nation magazine and Thulani Maseko were arrested on 17 March 2014 and charged with contempt of court for writing articles in the magazine critical of the Swazi judiciary and Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi in particular.

Posts on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, told the world of the arrests almost as they happened and posters have been following the case every step of the way as the two accused appear in court, seemingly day after day.

The posts alerted human rights organisations in Swaziland and across the world to the plight of the two men. Within hours condemnations of Swaziland, which is ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, were transmitted across the world. Amnesty International immediately named Makhubu and Maseko 'prisoners of conscience'.

The articles, originally published in the Nation, which has a tiny circulation in Swaziland, were posted on the Internet ensuring that many more people had the chance to read them than would have been the case.

Mainstream media outside of Swaziland quickly followed up on the stories and now the case of Makhubu and Maseko is international news.

Within Swaziland, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) reported that state broadcast media, which are almost every radio and television station in the kingdom, have ignored the case.

MISA reported, 'It must be said that the broadcast media in Swaziland is more censored than the print media and operates under a greater internalised fear of the authorities. The government has in place Public Service Announcement Guidelines for the state-controlled TV and radio, which among many other measures that restrict free speech, requires people to get approval from their local chief before issuing a statement.'

There are only two newspaper groups in Swaziland, the Swazi Observer, described by MISA in its annual report on press freedom in Swaziland as 'propaganda' for the Swazi Royal Family and the independent Times of Swaziland. Both have given extensive coverage to the trail of the two accused, but neither have given their readers details of what they have supposed to have done, beyond reporting they are on contempt of court charges.

The newspapers live in fear of reprisals from the state if they overstep the mark and criticise the judiciary, who are handpicked by King Mswati.

The Times Sunday refused to publish a comment article written by its regular columnist Musa Hlophe, himself a human rights activist, for fear of retribution.

The unpublished article was subsequently published on the Swazi Media Commentary blogsite and shared extensively on Facebook. The Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa later published it on its own website.

Social media sites were also the first to report the news that the US Ambassador to Swaziland Makila James had attended the Swazi High Court to offer her support to the two accused.

The US Embassy had previously roundly criticised the Swazi authorities for the arrests. Social media reported James saying that the court case would have an implication in an investigation the US is undertaking on human rights in Swaziland.

If improvements are not made by 15 May 2014, Swaziland risks losing its preferred trading status with the US under the AGOA agreement. This could risk 20,000 jobs in the textile industry in Swaziland.

Social media is fast becoming an essential vehicle for finding out the truth about what is going on in Swaziland. More and more ordinary people as well as established democracy advocates are taking to the Internet to get the message out.

It probably will not stop with the Makhubu and Maseko case. On 12 April, Swazi activists will mark the anniversary of the 1973 Royal Proclamation that turned Swaziland from a parliamentary democracy to an autocratic kingdom ruled by decree.

We can expect to get a more complete picture of the anti-government and anti-monarchy activities on that day from social media than ever we can from Swaziland's mainstream media.

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