26 July 2014

Swaziland: 'Black Friday for Journalism' in Swaziland - 'Explosive' and 'Hostile' Judge Sends Swazi Editor and Lawyer to Jail for 2 Years, Reports Local Media

press release

"An explosive and hostile Judge Mpendulo Simelane sentenced The Nation magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and columnist and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko to two years imprisonment without an option of a fine yesterday, sending shock waves to media practitioners locally and internationally," reports today's edition of weekly newspaper Observer on Saturday.

The Swazi News, a competing weekly newspaper, echoed the story of the judge's conduct by carrying the headline: 'Judge's tone was shocking - Human Rights Lawyers'.

"The Lawyers for Human Rights in Swaziland (LHRS) has expressed shock and disbelief at the tone used by Judge Mpendulo Simelane when sentencing Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko yesterday," reported the Swazi News.

The Swazi News went on to report: "Judge Mpendulo Simelane says The Nation Magazine Editor Bheki Makhubu and Human Rights Lawyer Thulani Maseko have not been remorseful throughout their trial." The report continues: "He made these comments when sentencing them to two years imprisonment without an option of a fine for contempt of court."

Police outside Swaziland's high court after a judge sentenced two writers to two years in jail

Both newspapers also reported on the heavy police presence at the court. Riot vans and police officers with rifles had surrounded the court as supporters came out after hearing of the sentence. The police were closely watching political activists who were singing and dancing in support of the convicted writers.

In reading the sentence judge Simelane said: "I am also cognizant of the fact that the Court is a paramount institution and should be respected. No one, I repeat, has a right to write scurrilous articles in the manner the Accused persons did. Such conduct destroys public confidence in the Courts, without which this country cannot function effectively. The Courts hence have to use the very ammunition of Contempt of Court in self-protection from journalists like the Accused persons. There should be accurate, factual, unbiased and responsible reporting by journalists and not mischevious inaccurate sensationalism which the Accused embarked upon."

Last week when Simelane announced the conviction to a packed court room, he 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. This is a fallacy."

"It's a very harsh sentence," said Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, national director of Swaziland's Media Instiute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland).

Responding to questions in the Swazi News about the possibility of overturning the sentence on appeal, Hlatshwayo said: "We would not like to pre-empt the court ruling but we can only hope for the best."

Amnesty International, a global human rights defender, described the sentence for Makhubu and Maseko as "deplorable", saying the ruling was intended to "stifle free speech".

Part of the statement reads: "During the trial, there was a clear conflict of interest as the presiding judge [Mpendulo Simelane] had been named in one of the articles. Also, prior to the judgment being handed down in court, the Minister of Justice reportedly had a meeting with the judge in his chambers."

Amnesty International has called the journalist and lawyer prisoners of conscience.

The duo were detained in jail for over 120 days as their lengthy trial played out. On several court appearances, much to the outrage and disbelief of local and international observers, the two writers were chained in leg irons.

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