Attacks on the Press 1999: Swaziland

The kingdom of Swaziland does not have a written constitution and is presently governed through a decree passed in 1973 by King Mswati III’s predecessor, King Sobhuza II. The decree limits freedom of speech and the press by banning all political activity and organizations. The Swazi government discourages critical reporting about the royal family; many journalists practice self-censorship when covering the monarchy and national security policy.

The country has only one independent newspaper, The Times of Swaziland, and no independent radio or television stations (although government broadcast facilities retransmit Voice of America and British Broadcasting Corporation news programs). In April, a photographer working for The Times was beaten up and detained by police while trying to take photos of a march by civil servants.

At the end of May, Swaziland began the process of creating a new constitution. The royally appointed Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) began canvassing citizens’ views on whether they wished to rettain the present nonparty system. Jour- nalists were barred from covering the six-month process. Because political organi- zations are proscribed, only individuals were allowed to participate in the survey. The results were to be interpreted by the CRC and the king, then put into a draft constitution that would be presented to the people at a national meeting in 2000.

In September, Swazi authorities charged Times Sunday editor Bheki Makhubu with criminal defamation, following an article in the September 12 edition of the newspaper that described the king’s most recent fiancée as a high-school dropout. The government used this incident and the public furor that it provoked to justify the drafting of a draconian new media law that was expected to take an even harsher view of defamation. (The details remained secret at year’s end.)

The government’s reaction was especially disappointing given that a 1998 govern- ment proposal to establish a media council with punitive powers had only recently been defeated after extensive lobbying by the local press.

April 6
Mduduzi Mngomezulu, The Times of Swaziland ATTACKED

Mngomezulu, a photographer with the independent daily Times of Swaziland, was beaten up by police officers while taking pictures at a demonstration of civil servants asking for higher wages. Several marchers were also beaten up and arrested by the police.

Though his camera was damaged in the assault, Mngomezulu and the Times were able to salvage the photographs. They did not press charges against the police.

September 27
Bheki Makhubu, Times Sunday HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION

Makhubu, editor of Swaziland’s independent Times Sunday newspaper, appeared in a Mbabane court on charges of criminal defamation, following his arrest the night before.

Makhubu was arrested in connection with an article in the September 12 edition of his newspaper that stated that King Mswati’s fiancée was a high-school dropout. Although the facts were not in dispute, the article sparked public criticism that the newspaper was being disrespectful to the monarchy.

He was granted bail of 3,000 emalangenis (US$500) on condition that he surrender his passport to the authorities, that he report to the police every two weeks, and that he refrain from publishing any more articles about King Mswati’s bride-to-be.

Shortly after this incident, Makhubu left his post at Times Sunday, although it was unclear whether he had suspended, dismissed, or forced to resign. At the same time, the Swazi government was in the process of drafting controversial media legislation that would clamp down on defamation of character.