WITH NO LEGAL FRAMEWORK TO PROTECT FREEDOM OF SPEECH, journalists in Swaziland are at the mercy of a government that actively discourages critical reporting about the royal family and the political system in general.
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch. He rules by decree, maintaining a decades-old ban on political parties and labor unions. A Constitutional Review Commission started writing a new constitution in 1996, but had not yet produced a draft by year’s end. Local media were banned from covering its work.
On January 10, Swazi authorities summoned Thulani Mthethwa, senior reporter for the official Swazi Observer, and pressured him to reveal the sources for two articles on Swazi police activities. Mthethwa refused to comply. On February 17, the government closed down The Swazi Observer and two other papers in the state-owned media group, the Weekend Observer and the weekly Intsatseli. The order came directly from the king in retaliation for Mthethwa’s refusal to reveal his sources, but was presented as a business restructuring by the papers’ board of directors. The move put more than 80 journalists out of work.
Meanwhile, the prosecution of former Times Sunday editor Bheki Makhubu continued in a criminal court in the capital, Mbabane. In their most notorious recent assault on free speech in the kingdom, Swazi authorities charged Makhubu with criminal defamation in September, 1999, for writing an article that described one of King Mswati’s wives as a high-school dropout.
Before Makhubu’s trial began in July, CPJ, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the South African Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), and the London-based anti-censorship group ARTICLE 19 issued a joint letter of protest condemning the relentless harassment of Makhubu.
The charges against Makhubu were dropped on August 23. In a subsequent e-mail to CPJ, Chief Justice S. W. Sapire of the Swazi High Court wrote that the letter had not “had any influence on the decision” to withdraw the charges against Makhubu. “Matters you say were incontestable were sub judice and should have been left to the court to decide,” the judge asserted. “As it is your communication could be seen as contempt of (the) court.”
Meanwhile, at least six foreign journalists were detained, harassed, or expelled from the country while covering a protracted confrontation between the Swazi government and local trade unions, which are technically illegal in Swaziland. And in late September, the Swazi government threatened to close down the local branch of the regional press watchdog MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa), after the organization held its yearly general meeting in Mbabane and issued a closing statement that called on the authorities to respect the media’s right to report the news.
Swazi Observer Media Group
Swazi authorities shut down the state-owned Swazi Observer Media Group, which included the daily Swazi Observer, the Weekend Observer, and the weekly Intsatseli, all headquartered in the capital, Mbabane.
The decision appeared to be part of a government campaign to punish the Swazi Observer‘s editorial staff for refusing to reveal confidential sources of information used in articles about the Swazi police.
The order to close the publications reportedly came verbally from King Mswati III via the group’s board of directors. The board claimed that the papers needed restructuring and financial reorganization. Sources in Mbabane, however, suggested that the board’s real motive was to punish the journalists for refusing to name the officials responsible for leaking a letter deemed secret by police. They noted 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.
The problems began in November 1999, when Swazi Observer 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 building of the council of traditional chiefs.
On January 10, police summoned Mthethwa to their headquarters after his newspaper published a confidential letter from Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary to George Fivaz, his South African counterpart asking assistance in arresting two Swazi businessmen linked to Ron Smith, another Swazi businessman who was then out on bail on drug-trafficking charges.
Mthethwa, whose bylined editorial explained the paper’s decision to print the commissioner’s letter, was urged to explain how he obtained the document, which he refused to do. The next day, he was again summoned to police headquarters 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 source. Once again, Mthethwa refused.
One day later, Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini summoned Mthethwa and his editor, Musa Magagula, and yet again demanded that they divulge the source. They refused. Dlamini then asked the High Court of Swaziland to force the journalists to identify the source, but the court declined.
On February 16, the newspaper’s board of directors threatened Mthethwa, Magagula, and managing editor Francis Harawa with “devastating consequences” unless they named the source of the Hillary letter. Later that day, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini summoned the three journalists to his office and made the same demand. Once again, they refused. The next morning, the media group’s editorial staff was ordered to vacate the premises.
CPJ protested the closure of the newspapers in a February 25 letter to Senator Magwagwa Mdluli, the minister of public service information, stating that the protection of confidential sources is a key ethical principle of independent journalism.