The government in the absolute monarchy of Swaziland (eSwatini) has introduced a law aimed at censoring all forms of media which could lead to a 10-year jail sentence for people publishing 'fake news'.
The kingdom ruled by King Mswati III as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch already has been labelled 'not free' by human rights groups.
A government gazette has been published detailing the proposed law. The bill will be piloted by the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology which is headed by the King's daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso.
The Times of eSwatini reported that the bill states that any person who publishes any statement or fake news through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person or group of persons commits an offence. On conviction a person would be liable to a fine not exceeding E10 million (US$600,000) or imprisonment not exceeding 10 years or both.
The new law would allow the courts to prosecute in some circumstances Swazi nationals who live outside of Swaziland. It also covers a wide range of offences including spamming and cyberstalking. Cyberstalking includes making false accusations, defamation and identity theft.
King Mswati who has been widely criticised by human rights groups controls much of the mainstream media in Swaziland. Nearly all broadcasting is state-controlled and one of the only two daily newspapers in the kingdom is in effect owned by the King. Formal censorship and self-censorship by journalists when reporting matters about the King is almost total.
In recent years news websites that call for human rights reforms in Swaziland have been launched. The editors of two of them are in exile in neighbouring South Africa after publishing articles deemed critical of the King. They face sedition charges if they return to Swaziland. There are also a number of Facebook sites and other social media platforms that carry material critical of the King.
Reporters Without Borders in its World Press Index released earlier in 2020 reported that there was no media freedom in Swaziland. It reported, 'No court is allowed to prosecute or try members of the government, but any criticism of the regime is liable to be the subject of a prosecution. Far from being an independent protector of rights and freedoms, the judicial system is often used to undermine journalism.'
Freedom House scored Swaziland 16 out of a possible 100 points in its Freedom in the World 2019 report. It concluded that Swaziland was 'not free'.
Freedom House stated, 'The King exercises ultimate authority over all branches of the national government and effectively controls local governance through his influence over traditional chiefs. Political dissent and civic and labor activism are subject to harsh punishment under sedition and other laws. Additional human rights problems include impunity for security forces and discrimination against women and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.'
In Swaziland political parties are barred from taking part in elections. Groups advocating for democracy are outlawed under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
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