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Swaziland

Key Developments

» Court fines journalist with independent paper for critical coverage.

» In small step, parliament passes two bills that promise to open the airwaves.

Dubbed "the world's last absolute monarchy," the tiny, land-locked country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy while King Mswati III maintained tight control of news media and opposition voices. The king owned one of the two daily newspapers and employed the editor of the other as an adviser. Radio and television were also controlled by the state. Though Swazis readily accessed South African radio and television, South African newspapers entering Swaziland were carefully screened by authorities: If deemed critical of the king or government, all copies were purchased and destroyed. Self-censorship prevailed in the kingdom, where political parties are banned and critical voices within civil society and the media were silenced through legal or professional repercussions. Few dared challenge the government; the boards of state-owned companies such as the Swazi Observer Newspaper group kept their editors in check and, in turn, editors ensured that their reporters toed the line. A court sentenced the editor of the independent paper The Nation to a harsh fine in connection with his critical articles. He appealed to the Supreme Court and was free pending the appeal. In a positive development, parliament passed bills allowing for the creation of diverse TV and radio services, including community radio, and a commission to regulate broadcasting.



  • US
    $20,000

    Fine
  • 1

    Independent news outlet
  • 8

    Month suspension
  • 2

    Broadcasting bills passed
 

A court in April fined Bhekitemba Makhubu, editor of The Nation, US$20,000 in connection with articles he published in 2009 and 2010 that criticized the Swaziland judiciary. Makhubu was ordered to serve two years in jail if he failed to pay the fine. He is appealing the sentence.

Makhubu's article said the Swazi judiciary had failed to uphold the values of the country's 2005 constitution and allow political parties, and claimed that the judgment equated Swaziland's administration in 2009 with medieval politics in England.

The Nation has come under attack in recent years.


Timeline of attacks:

November 2009:

The Nation publishes an article under the headline: "Will the judiciary come to the party: Chief Justice Richard Banda needs to rally his troops behind the Constitution of 2005."

December 2009:

Swaziland's attorney general sends a letter to Makhubu, saying that his article is contemptuous and that the paper should consider publishing an apology to the chief justice. The Nation refuses to apologize.

February 2010:

The Nation publishes a second article, a commentary by Makhubu, under the headline: "Speaking my mind."

March 2010:

Makhubu and Swaziland Independent Publishers, which publishes The Nation, are charged with "contempt of court by scandalizing the court" and with bringing the "administration of justice into disrepute."

February 2012:

Makhubu defends himself in court, saying his articles are fair comment and in the public interest.

April 17, 2013:

In a 91-page judgment, Justice M.C.B. Maphalala convicts Makhubu and Swaziland Independent Publishers on both counts and sentences them to pay a fine totaling 400,000 emalangeni (about US$40,000). The judge rules that half the fine will be suspended as long as they are not found guilty of a similar offense in the next five years. The judge also orders them to pay the fine within three days, saying that failure to do so would result in a two-year jail term for Makhubu.

April 23, 2013:

Makhubu lodges an appeal with the Supreme Court. No date is set for the hearing and he is free pending appeal.
 

The monthly news magazine The Nation is owned and published by Swaziland Independent Publishers. Media freedom advocates regard the publication as the only independent voice in Swaziland.

Despite Section 24 of Swaziland's constitution enshrining freedom of the press, most of the principal media outlets are controlled by the state or choose to self-censor.


Principal media outlets:

Times of Swaziland

The paper is privately owned, but defers to the king, says Richard Rooney, former journalism professor at the University of Swaziland. Martin Dlamini, managing editor of the paper, is employed by the king as an adviser.

In 2011, Rooney wrote that the Times had a "long history of kowtowing to King Mswati," and cited examples of the paper censoring coverage criticizing the king or dropping columnists who criticized the royal regime.

In the mid-1990s, the government threatened to withdraw all the Times' advertising if the newspaper did not toe the line in its coverage, and in 2007 the paper was threatened with closing after it ran a report critical of the country's bleak economic outlook and poor governance.

The Swazi Observer Newspaper Group

King Mswati III owns the paper through a royal conglomerate, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, established by the king's father, King Sobhuza II, in 1968. According to its mission statement, it aims to capture "the dynamics of Swaziland, reflecting the reality of Swaziland ...while upholding the social and cultural values of the Swazi nation."

Voice of the Church

The global Christian radio network Trans World Radio owns the station. It broadcasts courtesy of a royal permit from the king, and its content is confined to religious matters.

The Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service

This state-owned radio station broadcasts in English and Siswati. The government has banned coverage of the activities of labor unions, including strikes and announcements, by the state broadcasters, according to a report by the Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. 

Swazi TV

The station is owned by the state-run Swaziland Television Authority. The government has invoked Public Service Announcement guidelines to prevent citizens from airing their views via radio and TV state broadcasters, according to a report by the Media Institute of Southern Africa Swaziland.

Channel Swazi

This private TV station is on and off the air due to financial challenges. According to MISA Swaziland, neither this private TV channel nor Voice of the Church station "dares to question the country's ruling elite or report on them in anything but positive terms."
 

Two editors, Alec Lushaba and Thulani Thwala, were reinstated in March 2013 after being suspended by their employer, the Swazi Observer Newspaper group, for eight months, according to news reports.

The editors were accused of "negative coverage" and failure to follow the company's mandate, which includes "upholding the social and cultural values of the Swazi nation." The king is seen as the embodiment of these values.

Lushaba and Thwala had published critical stories about the king, including a June 2011 article about Swaziland's alleged attempts to secure a loan from South Africa, which was believed to cause embarrassment to the king, according to the managing director of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, the royal entity that owns the Swazi Observer Newspaper group.

In June 2012, South Africa and Swaziland concluded a loan agreement of approximately US$240 million, conditional on Swaziland's implementing political and economic reforms. But in January 2013, Swaziland said it would not take the loan.

 

Community radio was outlawed in Swaziland, but in June 2013 parliament passed the Swaziland Communications Commission Bill and the Electronic Communications Bill, which will allow for the creation of a community radio sector and a communications commission to regulate the broadcasting environment. Previously, the head of Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service determined which stations were allowed on air.

A fledgling network of community stations launched in July 2013 and individual stations are applying for broadcast licenses.


Stations applying for licenses:
Lubombo Community Radio
Matsanjeni Community Radio
Ngwemphisi Community Radio
University Campus Radio
Seventh-day Adventist Church Radio
Voice of the Church
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