Swaziland: Justice Minister Misleads World Over Media Freedom in Swaziland

The Swaziland (eSwatini) Minister of Justice Pholile Shakantu misled the world when she claimed that the kingdom enjoyed media freedom, enshrined by the constitution.

She was responding to an article by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) about newspaper editor Zweli Martin Dlamini who fled Swaziland after police raided his home. He said he was being sought because of articles he had written that were considered seditious.

The New York-based CPJ had previously called on Swaziland to 'stop intimidating and harassing local journalists for reporting critically about King Mswati III'. It added they should be allowed to write freely without the threat of treason charges.

In a statement published on the eSwatini Government social media platforms Shakantu claimed it was a 'misconception' that 'we are a nation that persecutes journalists who criticise the government'. She added that the 2005 Swaziland Constitution guaranteed 'freedom of expression including freedom of the media'.

Shakantu is correct that journalists often criticise government action, but the bigger point is that they are not allowed to criticise the absolute monarch King Mswati III.

As recently as 1 May 2020 Ncamiso Ngcamphalala, President of the Swaziland Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), was arrested and charged under the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act 1938 for comments he made in an a article published by Swati Newsweek, a news website.

His 'crime' was not writing an article, it was simply for expressing an opinion to a journalist. This is what he was quoted as saying, 'We want government to change people's lives, the Swazi Monarchy must know its place. We respect the King, but respect is earned and when pushed into a corner; we will be forced to retaliate. We unapologetically stand for multi-party democracy.'

In April, Eugene Dube, the Swati Newsweek editor, was arrested, tortured by police and threatened with a charge of treason for publishing the report. He fled to South Africa.

King Mswati rules Swaziland as an absolute monarch. He chooses the Prime Minister and government ministers as well as top judges and civil servants. Political parties cannot take part in elections and groups campaigning for democratic reforms are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.

King Mswati's lavish lifestyle has come under scrutiny in media outside of the kingdom. He rules over a population of 1.3 million people in a kingdom about the size of the US state of New Jersey. He has 13 palaces, two private aircraft and a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars and other expensive cars.

He wore a watch worth US$1.6 million and a suit beaded with diamonds weighing 6 kg, at his 50th birthday party in April 2018. He received E15 million (US$1.2 million) in cheques, a gold dining room suite and a gold lounge suite among his birthday gifts. At the time the World Food Program said it could not raise the US$1.1 million it needed to feed starving children in the kingdom.

Meanwhile, seven in ten of the people in Swaziland have incomes less than the equivalent of US$2 per day.

The media in Swaziland never criticise the King. Nearly all television and radio is controlled by the state and the government directs the news agenda at Swazi TV. The King in effect owns the eSwatini Observer, one of the only two newspaper groups in Swaziland.

In recent years a number of independent internet sites have begun reporting about Swaziland. Most are based outside of the kingdom.

There is ample evidence to show that media freedom is lacking in Swaziland. In April 2020 in its annual World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders recorded there was 'no media freedom' in Swaziland. It reported, 'The King's speechwriter is the editor in chief of the country's oldest and most popular newspaper.'

In March 2020 Swaziland journalist and former government cabinet minister Mfomfo Nkambule said he had been tortured by police after he wrote articles for the online newspaper Swaziland News that were critical of the King. Nkambule, a long-standing critic of the Swazi political system, said police also took electronic gadgets and threatened to charge him with 'high treason' and 'sedition'.

In January 2020 National Commissioner of Police William Dlamini announced in a written statement published in media across Swaziland that his officers would hunt down and arrest people who criticised the King on social media.

Dlamini said there were 'highly insolent and morality devoid characters disseminating seditious, slanderous and very insultive statements about the country's authorities via social media'. He added, 'The intent and motive of these statements is seemingly to vilify and pour scorn on the country's authorities, which we find completely unacceptable and an insult to the entire nation.'

This was not the first time the Swazi state has threatened social media users. In March 2018, Swaziland's then Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini hinted his government might try to restrict access to social media, but he told senators there was nothing police could do 'at the moment' about the posts.

The Swazi Observer reported at the time, 'The premier said it was unfortunate that social media was a very complex phenomenon, which no single person or organisation could control.'

In March 2012, Swaziland's Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze said he would use the law against people who criticised Swaziland on the internet. He told the Swazi Senate that he would use what he called 'international laws' to bring the internet critics to task. He was reacting to concerns from Senators that the internet sites showed 'disrespect' to the King.

In 2010 Prince Mahlaba, a senior member of the Swazi Royal Family, publicly called for journalists who opposed the King Mswati to be killed. His threat became an international scandal. The CPJ rallied behind the Swazi media and condemned Mahlaba. Internet sites from every continent carried news criticising the prince and by extension the whole undemocratic regime in Swaziland.

Another case to receive international condemnation was the jailing in 2014 of magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and writer and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko who were sentenced to two years in jail after writing and publishing articles in the Nation, a monthly magazine, that were critical of the Swazi judiciary. They were released by the Swazi Supreme Court in June 2015 after they had served 15 months of their sentences.

Richard Rooney

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