July 5, 2001
His Majesty King Mswati III
C/o Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Swaziland to the United Nations
New York, NY 10022
Via Fax: 212-754-2755
CPJ is deeply concerned about your June 22 decree expanding the Swazi government’s already sweeping power to ban local publications.
The decree, a continuation of the King’s Proclamation of 1973, authorizes the “appropriate ministry” to ban any publication for any reason. “The minister concerned shall not furnish any reason or jurisdictional facts for such proscription,” reads the decree.
The decree forbids any legal challenges to a government ban and adds that under Section 3 (2) of the Sedition and Subversives Activities Act, any person who “insults, ridicules or puts into contempt the King or the Queen, in whatever way or form, commits an offence” and is liable to a fine of up to 50,000 emalangeni (US$6,200), up to 10 years imprisonment, or both.
The independent media in Swaziland have been under government siege since 1999. Your recent decree is plainly designed to intimidate any journalist who might question Your Majesty’s absolute rule.
The Swazi Constitution was suspended in 1973, leaving the country’s journalists with no legal protections. Although a Constitutional Review Commission has been working on a new constitution since 1996, the media are forbidden to report on the commission’s activities.
In 1999, the independent weekly newspaper Times Sunday published an article by editor-in-chief Bekhi Makhubu reporting that your then-fiancée was a high school dropout. Although the facts were not disputed, Makhubu was charged with criminal defamation due to his alleged “disrespect” for the monarchy.
In February 2000, the government abruptly closed the state-owned Swazi Observer Group of newspapers, a move widely seen as retaliation for the flagship Swazi Observer‘s refusal to reveal sources for two December 1999 articles on local police activities. (The paper was re-launched earlier this year.)
Senior investigative reporter Thulani Mthethwa reported that police had identified a suspect in connection with the November 1999 bombing of the deputy prime minister’s office and the headquarters of the Council of Traditional Chiefs. Police repeatedly interrogated Mthethwa about the articles, pressuring him to reveal his sources and accusing him of interfering with law enforcement by disclosing details about an ongoing investigation. When the journalist and his editor refused to compromise their sources, the newspaper was closed.
In our May 11 letter to you, we expressed our concern about the government’s suspension of two independent newspapers, The Guardian and The Nation, ostensibly over their failure to comply with new, hastily introduced media registration laws. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the minister of public service and information announced that all newspapers that had not been registered under the Books and Newspapers Act of 1963 would be closed with immediate effect. Any unregistered publication that had been in existence for more than five years would have two weeks to comply with the Act by registering.
The latter clause was clearly designed to protect the government-owned Swazi Observer and the pro-government Times of Swaziland. It seems hardly coincidental that the new registration laws directly affected The Guardian and The Nation, both outspoken critics of the Swazi monarchy.
As an organization of journalists defending press freedom around the world, CPJ believes that journalists everywhere must be free to cover matters of national interest without interference from the state. We respectfully remind Your Majesty that the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information is a right afforded to all people, regardless of the form of government under which they live, according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We urge you to reverse the suspension of The Guardian and The Nation, and to rescind all decrees and other legal instruments that currently restrict press freedom in Swaziland.
We await your comments on these urgent matters.
Ann K. Cooper