Swaziland's High Court has sent a chilling warning to journalists in the kingdom that the law courts can determine what they are permitted to write and what they are not.
High Court Judge Mpendulo Simelane ruled that Section 24 of Swaziland's Constitution that includes guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press can be overridden by judges.
In a ruling in which he convicted a magazine editor and a writer of contempt of court, Judge Simelane said, 'No one has the right to attack a judge or the Courts under the disguise of the right of freedom of expression.' He said this was 'because it is in the public interest that the authority and dignity of the Court is maintained'.
Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko had written and published articles in the Nation, a monthly magazine in Swaziland, that were critical of the Swazi judiciary in general and Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi in particular.
The pair are awaiting sentence on a date yet to be set.
In his judgment, Judge Simelane said, 'The rule of law is meant to benefit everyone. Some journalists have this misconception that just because they have the power of the pen and paper they can say or write anything under the disguise of freedom of expression.'
The judge's ruling has been criticized across the world. Amnesty International said, 'Their detention and trial violate their right to exercise freedom of expression as guaranteed under Swaziland's domestic and international human rights obligations.'
The International Commission of Journalists said, 'The right of freedom of expression is a right which is foundational to free societies.
'Its respect is recognized as a necessary condition for the realization of transparency and accountability that are essential for the promotion, protection and realization of human rights.
'It includes the right to impart information to others in almost any form. It covers both facts and opinions.'
Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine called the ruling, 'an indictment of the thin-skinned Swazi judiciary that serves a monarch and denies citizens the basic right of freedom of expression'.
Santiago A. Canton, Executive Director of Robert F. Kennedy Partners for Human Rights said, 'A judicial system that is ready to deny freedom of expression to shield itself from criticism cannot legitimately claim to be administering justice", and added, 'Public officials, such as judges and magistrates, by the very nature of their position should be freely scrutinized by the population.'
Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) Campaigns Manager Mark Beacon said, 'This was a highly politicised trial and yet another example of how the Swazi regime uses the judicial system to crush anyone who dares to criticise them.'
Cléa Kahn-Sriber, head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk, said, 'This is clearly a political verdict designed to gag Swaziland's only independent publication. It will also send a chilling message to all other Swazi journalists.'
Innocent Maphalala, editor of the Times Sunday, a newspaper in Swaziland, where nearly all broadcast media are state-controlled and one of the kingdom's only two newspaper groups is in effect owned by King Mswati III, called the court ruling, 'a sad day for Swazi journalists'.
Dr. Maxwell Mthembu, a journalism and mass communication lecturer at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) told local media the judgment suppressed media freedom 'at a time when the media has already been turned into a lap dog'.
The Observer Sunday quoted him saying, 'The judgment is oblivious of the fact that the media has to monitor and keep check of the three arms of government. It concludes that the judiciary is beyond reproach. That is not proper because the media has to ensure those checks,'
He added, 'This is really bad for the media because it breeds censorship. What this judgment means is that the media can no longer touch the judiciary.'