Princess Sikhanyiso, the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology in Swaziland (eSwatini), was just plain misleading when she told a meeting of editors in the kingdom, 'A free media is not an optional extra. Therefore it is our duty to protect media freedom.'
There is very little media freedom in Swaziland, where one of the only two daily newspapers is owned by King Mswati who rules the kingdom as an absolute monarch.
All broadcast news is controlled by the government, whose members are handpicked by the King.
Princess Sikhanyiso is a daughter of the King and was not elected by the people. In Swaziland, all political parties are banned from taking part in elections and the King appoints all government ministers. He also appoints top public servants and senior judges.
Princess Sikhanyiso made her comment on Wednesday (20 November 2019) at a meeting of the Swaziland Editors Forum.
Her comment is demonstrably false. In its most recent annual report on human rights in Swaziland covering 2018, the United States State Department stated, 'The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted this right, particularly with respect to press freedom and matters concerning the monarchy. Although no law bans criticism of the monarchy, the prime minister used threats and intimidation to restrict such criticism.
'The law empowers the government to ban publications if it deems them "prejudicial or potentially prejudicial to the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health." Many journalists practiced self-censorship. Journalists expressed fear of reporting on matters involving the monarchy.'
The report added, 'Broadcast media remained firmly under state control. Most persons obtained their news from radio broadcasts. Access to speak on national radio is generally restricted to government officials, although a leader of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland received an opportunity in September to share trade union frustrations and demands.'
A report compiled by Swazi Media Commentary in May 2019 detailing attacks on journalists in Swaziland during the previous 12 months revealed they had been beaten by state forces and teachers as they tried to cover public events. Two were detained at the Qatar Embassy in Mbabane, the Swazi capital, when they went to question a diplomat. A government minister called for a journalist to be arrested for taking photographs of ministerial cars parked in a public place. A former newspaper editor was questioned by police about allegations he had interviewed members of banned political organisations back in 2011.
In April 2019 it was reported that a journalist on the Swazi Observer needed hospital treatment after he was beaten by family members of a prominent bishop when he was investigating allegations of the bishop's sexual relationship with a schoolgirl. He needed hospital treatment. Five people were later charged by police.
In July 2018, Health Minister Ndlela-Simelane called on police to arrest a Swazi Observer journalist who was photographing government ministers' cars outside the Deputy Prime Minister's office. She demanded that the photographs be deleted which the journalist did. The newspaper had previously published a report about government ministers' BMW cars being in a bad state of repair. It was checking a government claim that the vehicles had been repaired and were back on the road.
In August 2018, police and prison warders beat up a Times of Swaziland journalist and demanded he delete photographs he took of them attacking and shooting at striking textile workers at Nhlangano. The reporter was treated in hospital. More than 200 paramilitary police and correctional facility warders with riot shields, helmets and batons had been at Nhlangano. It had been the third police attack on workers in a week.
Human rights groups condemned the attack. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabawe chapter called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to investigate Swaziland after a series of 'state-sponsored violations against journalists'.
It called the police attack, 'an increasingly worrying development involving state security agents'. It pointed out that in February 2018 a photojournalist with the Swazi Observer had also been attacked after he took pictures of a convoy of overcrowded vehicles transporting prison wardens.
MISA called the attacks, 'a direct attack on the rights to free expression and press freedom as explicitly protected in Section 24 of eSwatini's Constitution. Yet State security forces continue to attack journalists with impunity.'
It called on SADC to look into 'these continued state-sponsored violations against journalists. It is high time the regional body condemned the continued use of state security agents to violate fundamental rights such as the right to free expression and the right to access information.'
MISA Swaziland chapter said it was concerned the attacks on journalists were taking place ahead of national elections which were held in September 2018. It stated, 'The law enforcement agents ought to know that journalists play a public service of disseminating information that emaSwati [Swazi people] need desperately to make informed decisions and choices.'
It added, 'Whosoever attacks journalists in line of duty, stands accused of violating emaSwati's constitutional right to information.'
Separately, the Panos Institute Southern Africa said the state attacks on journalists were unconstitutional. In a statementit said, 'Journalism is not a crime, but is a freedom that must be cherished and protected by all who are concerned about the region's development. Any attack on press freedom is a blow on the implementation of poverty eradication interventions, as the media is a strategic ally in the roll-out of national development programmes.'
In September 2018, a photojournalist with the Swazi Observer was assaulted and had his camera taken while covering protest march by schoolteachers. He was hit with open hands and fists and he sustained injuries on the face and body. His camera was taken but later recovered. It happened near the United States Embassy in Mbabane while teachers marched to deliver a petition seeking support in their campaign for higher salaries.
In October 2018, the Qatar embassy in Swaziland detained two journalists from the Times of Swaziland for more than an hour in the kingdom's capital, Mbabane. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported a senior diplomat tried to make them sign a statement barring them from publishing a report about his alleged involvement in an assault.
The journalists refused to sign, saying the story was in the public interest. They were released and later went to local police to lay a charge of kidnapping.
Times of Swaziland editor Martin Dlamini told CPJ, 'We are shocked that our journalists could be subjected to such treatment by an ambassador. This is not just a serious attack on the local media but displays disrespect toward the country.'
In November 2018, Musa Ndlangamandla, a former editor-in-chief of the Swazi Observer and a writer for South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper, was questioned by police for talking to banned political parties for articles he had written in 2011.
He wrote on his Facebook page, 'They told me they are building a case against me for interacting (they actually called it advertising) PUDEMO, Umbane and other entities they described as proscribed.'