Swaziland: Media group closed for not revealing sources

February 25, 2000

Senator Magwagwa Mdluli
Minister of Public Service Information

Via Fax: 011 268 404 5379

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the abrupt closure, on February 17, of the state-owned Swazi Observer media group, which includes the daily Swazi Observer, the Weekend Observer, and the weekly Intsatseli. This decision appears to be the latest and most serious attempt to punish the Swazi Observer‘s editorial staff for refusing to reveal confidential sources of information contained in recent critical reports on Swazi police activities.

The government’s campaign against the Swazi Observer began in November 1999, when senior investigative reporter Thulani Mthethwa alleged that police had identified a suspect in connection with the November 12, 1999 bombing of the deputy prime minister’s office and the headquarters of the council of traditional chiefs. Even though Mthethwa’s article did not identify the suspect by name, police officials accused the journalist of interfering with law enforcement by disclosing details of their investigations.

The campaign intensified after January 10, 2000, when the Swazi Oberver published a confidential letter from Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary to George Fivaz, his South African counterpart. In his letter, Hillary requested assistance from the South African Police Special Squad in arresting two Swazi businessmen linked to Ron Smith, another Swazi businessman currently on bail on drug trafficking charges.

Subsequently, officials at every level of the Swazi government pressured the paper to identify the person(s) responsible for leaking the letter. That same day, police summoned and interrogated Mthethwa, whose bylined editorial explained why the paper had chosen to publish the commissioner’s letter. Police urged Mthethwa to reveal his sources, which he refused to do.

On January 11, Mthethwa was again summoned to police headquarters in Mbabane, where Police Commissioner Hillary, his deputy, Esau Dube, and police public relations officer Leckinah Magagula called him a “bullying” and “irresponsible” journalist and threatened legal action unless he revealed his sources. Once again, Mthethwa refused.

The next day (January 12), Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini summoned Mthethwa and his editor, Musa Magagula, and demanded that they divulge their sources. They refused. Dlamini subsequently tried to force the issue by asking the High Court of Swaziland to issue an ex-parte order forcing the journalists to reveal their sources, but the court refused his request.

On February 16, the newspaper’s board of directors threatened Mthethwa, Magagula, and managing editor Francis Harawa with “devastating consequences” unless they named their sources. Later that day, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini summoned the three journalists to his office and made the same demand. Once again, the journalists refused.

According to sources in Mbabane, the order to retaliate against the journalists by closing the state-owned Swazi Observer media group came verbally from King Mswati III. On February 17, the group’s board of directors announced that it was closing all its publications with immediate effect. The board claimed that the papers needed restructuring and financial reorganization.

CPJ’s sources suggest that the board’s real motive was to punish the journalists for refusing to name the people responsible for leaking Commissioner Hillary’s letter. They note that although the group’s publishing ventures had been losing money overall, the board had recently approved a five-year expansion plan for the Swazi Observer.

CPJ understands police concerns about maintaining the confidentiality of their investigations. However, forcing journalists to disclose the identity of confidential sources is a grave threat to independent journalism. CPJ therefore condemns the closure of the Swazi Observer media group as a gross violation of journalists’ internationally recognized right to seek, receive and impart information without fear of reprisal. This right is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to all of which, we respectfully remind you, the Kingdom of Swaziland is a signatory.

We await your comments on this urgent matter. Sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director