7 January 2018

Swaziland: Journalists 'Scared to Do Their Jobs'

Journalists in Swaziland cannot do their jobs properly because they fear people in authority, a leading media academic in the kingdom said.

Dr Maxwell Mthembu from the University of Swaziland said journalists were scared to report matters affecting the public and to hold government accountable; especially on decisions involving reckless spending and poor investments of the public funds, the Sunday Observer newspaper reported (17 December 2017).

Mthembu was speaking at a workshop hosted by World Vision.

The newspaper reported Mthembu said, journalists' and editors' worst enemy was fear of those in authority, and fear of the unknown. He said this resulted in the media failing to execute their watchdog role, and being a voice of the voiceless in society.

He told the audience of journalists, 'We fear the unknown, we fear those in authority; whatever challenges we face in society are there because you who have been entrusted with the responsibility of being the voice of the voiceless fear writing stories on things that affects the public.'

Media freedom is constantly under attack and censorship is rife in Swaziland where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch.

There are only two daily newspapers in Swaziland and one - the Swazi Observer - is in effect owned by the King. The state controls nearly all broadcasting.

The law is used to attack freedom of speech. Thulani Maseko, a long-time campaigner for human rights, was jailed for two years along with Nation Magazine editor Bheki Makhubu in July 2014 for writing articles critical of the Swazi judiciary.

In 2015, Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland) and CIVICUS, an international human rights group, in a submission to the United Nations jointly called for media freedom in the kingdom to be respected and for more independent newspapers and media houses to be allowed to operate.

The report listed a number of media freedom violations in Swaziland. It said the Swazi Government, which is not elected but appointed by the King, 'strictly controls freedom of expression and the media'.

They added, 'Reporting on royal and political matters is severely restricted. Further, regular threats emanating from senior government officials and the royal family to journalists also lead to government censorship and self-censorship by the media further curtailing democratic freedoms'.

The report detailed a number of media freedom violations.

It stated, 'On 28 April 2014, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi threatened the Managing Editor of the Swazi Observer, Mbongeni Mbingo over reports on court proceedings in the case involving the editor of Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.

'In the 30 March 2014 edition of the newspaper, Mbongeni expressed concerns that Bheki and Thulani were in jail even though the prosecuting team had not concluded its investigations. The Chief Justice ordered Mbongeni to stop reporting on the case and warned that he would be subjected to the same fate as the accused.'

On 17 April 2013, Bheki Makhubu, was found guilty of contempt of court for 'scurrilous abuse of the Chief Justice' based on articles he wrote in November 2009 and February 2010 in which he criticised Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi. On 30 May 2014, he won an appeal with the Supreme Court and the sentence was reduced to three months fully suspended on condition that he is not convicted of any offence of scandalising the court for a period of three years.

The joint report added, 'On 15 January 2014, the government-controlled Swazi Observer newspaper suspended its editor Thulani Thwala and weekend editor Alec Lushaba after they were accused of failing to adhere to the mandate of the newspaper by publishing negative news stories about the King.

'The journalists were accused of failing to heed several warnings not to publish damaging reports about the King. Prior to the suspension, they published reports indicating that the Swazi government had solicited a financial bailout from South Africa. Eight months after their suspension, the Board of Directors of the Swazi Observer Newspaper Group reinstated them.

'The Swazi Observer newspaper is controlled by the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane conglomerate, which is owned by the King. News items published are highly censored.'

Younger people reportedly are bypassing censored media. In 2014, a report jointly published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) found young people in Swaziland were turning to social media sites such as Facebook because it allowed them to enjoy 'the fundamental rights to freedom of expression' that was denied to them elsewhere in the kingdom.

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