The arrival of the novel Coronavirus in Eswatini on 14 March 2020, and the resulting Government lockdown measures, have brought fears of media repression and the violation of citizen rights. Reports of these have circulated in mainstream media and social media. This article assesses the ramifications of these measures on rule of law, human rights and freedoms, government rhetoric, political opportunism as well as the humanitarian situation.
Rule of law and emergency measures
The advent of the novel Coronavirus in Eswatini on 14 March 2020 led to the Government responding by instituting a 'partial lockdown' to contain the virus on 17 March 2020; then eased it for yet another 'partial lockdown' in the beginning of April 2020, then resorted to an almost total shutdown in mid-April, which was extended for a 21- day period - to end on 7 May 2020. Regulations dealing with the virus inter alia, empower the Minister of Commerce and Trade to prescribe which essential services shall be available for trade during the period of the national emergency.
The back and forth regulation changes by the government - in the period between March and mid-April - created confusion which could be linked to the unprecedented growth in the numbers of those infected (the number is 119 as of 05 May 2020). This may not be easy to establish; however, what remains clear is that citizens became confused as to what each of these issued regulations meant for them.
Rights & Freedoms
Fears of media repression and the violation of citizen rights are reported on mainstream media and social media. The Editor of online publication Swazi News Online, Zweli Martin Dlamini, is currently in hiding as he is on the wanted list of the police. He is alleged to have published regular articles critical of the King Mswati III. The Editor of sister online publication Swazi Newsweek, Eugene Dube, is also in hiding for fear of the police, who had arrested and released him previously.
News had got out that he was again wanted in connection with articles criticising the King. Two leaders of the banned Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO) were arrested in the South of the country (Nhlangano) and were allegedly later released, with no clear charges brought against them. The deployed army, correctional and police forces personnel to enforce the COVID 19 regulations are also increasingly accused of violating human/citizen rights.
A statement from the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) issued to commemorate the International Press Freedom Day has been viewed by some as merely a rhetorical gesture with little significance and meaning to the lives of journalists and media practitioners. This, because the statement was issued while journalists critical of the ruling elite are allegedly being persecuted. As expected, the statement declares that the government of Eswatini shall continue to respect press freedom, engage with the media and support a free and healthy press in line with the year's theme: "Journalism without fear or favour".
Recently, a local daily reported that Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Assembly raised concerns over an audio of a parliamentary submission of one MP which seemingly gained sudden popularity and is hailed for raising critical issues - especially in criticising government's approach on providing humanitarian relief to the most economically vulnerable in this national emergency. The major concern raised by the MPs was their desire to establish how the audio was leaked from the chambers. Deliberations within houses of parliament are supposed to be open for public consumption, save for a few closed sessions. It was therefore disturbing to citizens when the MPs demanded that an investigation be instituted to establish how the audio had been 'leaked'. Given a wide perception that the legislature is generally docile, this audio seemed to break from that accepted norm.
The Humanitarian Situation
Eswatini has a large informal economy at about 53.4% of GDP (2016 ILO Statistics); an unemployment rate of above 28% and an estimated 63% (about 750,000 people) of the population that live below the poverty line; these form a large part of those most affected. A relief package by the government targeting these groups was announced by Prime Minister Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini on 22 April 2020, aimed at distributing food parcels to about 300,000 emaSwati.