Absolute ruler King Mswati III learned just how small the global village can be when he signed a June 22 media decree that was immediately denounced by human rights organizations and governments worldwide.
Decree No. 2 made it a seditious offense, punishable with a 10-year jail term, to “impersonate, insult, ridicule, or put into contempt” the king, tribal chiefs, and state officials. The decree allowed the banning of publications without appeal, removed bail for a number of press offenses, and raised penalties for libel. It also upheld a ban on the political opposition and the suspension of the Swazi Constitution, both in place since 1973.
The king’s decree marked a climax in his government’s protracted face-off with the kingdom’s small independent press. The confrontation began in early 2000, after authorities shut down the entire state-owned press for criticizing the Swazi police. (The papers resumed publishing in February 2001 with an entirely new staff).
As international criticism of Swaziland’s press freedom record mounted, the government launched a satellite news television channel, Channel S, ostensibly to counter perceptions that the king was quashing democracy and violating human rights. Channel S was supposed to air in 17 countries.
In late July, a CPJ delegate visited the Swazi capital, Mbabane, and met with journalists from the independent press, members of the political opposition, and labor leaders. Managers and journalists from the state media declined to be interviewed, saying that their “hands [were] tied.”
CPJ found that tensions between the state and private media have sharpened since economist Sibusiso Dlamini became prime minister five years ago. For example, the Swazi National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) has only 70 members, although the state media employs over 140 media workers. Members of the independent press say their public sector colleagues have been instructed to avoid professional groups not sanctioned by the authorities.
Prime Minister Dlamini is effectively the “editor-in-chief” of all state and pro-government newspapers. He presides over a weekly gathering of editors and vets stories before they are printed. Local journalists told CPJ that it was nearly impossible to investigate sensitive issues because their requests for government-held information are routinely channeled through a daunting bureaucratic maze.
On March 2, local BBC stringer Thulani Mthethwa and others launched a new weekly magazine called Guardian and announced that they intended to cover palace intrigues, until then an untouchable subject for Swazi journalists. In its second issue, Guardian covered rumors that King Mswati was in ill health, having been poisoned by one of his many wives. Other articles reported on the royal family’s efforts to throttle civic organizations. Two days later, on May 4, the state registrar of newspapers suspended the Guardian, claiming the magazine had not been properly registered. The authorities also banned the monthly magazine The Nation after it ran similar reports.
In mid-May, Parliament threatened to revive the oppressive Media Council Bill, which had been shelved in 1997. And after the High Court lifted the ban on The Nation in late May, Prime Minister Dlamini hastened to re-impose it on state security grounds. King Mswati pitched his ill-advised Decree No. 2 as a definitive solution to the crisis in late June. But the government withdrew the decree on July 24, sealing an important victory for the press and for Swazi democracy.
Independent observers concur that pressure from the United Sates, whose trade agreements with Swaziland keep the tiny kingdom afloat, forced the king to scrap Decree No. 2.
The ban on The Nation was finally lifted in late June, after editors brokered a gentlemen’s agreement with the authorities. In late August, the High Court allowed the Guardian to resume publishing. Swazi officials promptly appealed the ruling; the parties were still negotiating a settlement at year’s end.
In November, senior police officials threatened three Swazi stringers for foreign media with harsh reprisals if they wrote negative reports about the king. The three are BBC stringer Mthethwa, Lunga Masuku of African Eye News, and Bheki Matsebula of Sowetan Sunday World.
Also in November, lawmakers endorsed a proposal to fine journalists over US$1,000 if they misrepresent any parliamentary debate. But King Mswati seemed to have adopted a more tolerant attitude by year’s end. In early December, The Mouth That Never Lies, as the king is also known, commissioned a 15-member team to draft a new, more liberal constitution within the next 18 months.
The government announced that all newspapers that had not been registered under the Books and Newspapers Act of 1963 would be closed.
Any publication that was not registered but had been in existence for more than five years would have two weeks to register. All others would have to close down completely and then apply for registration.
Also on May 4, the independent newspaper The Guardian, which started as an online publication in 2000 and launched as a print newspaper the following year, received a hand-delivered letter from the government stating that the publication was not registered and would have to cease production immediately. According to Guardian management, however, the paper had obtained a publication license and had deposited a bond with a bank.
That same day, police impounded all copies of The Guardian at the South African border (the paper is printed in Middleburg, South Africa.) The copies were transported to police headquarters in Mbabane.
Guardian lawyers filed an urgent application with Chief Justice Stanley Sapire seeking the release of the impounded papers and an injunction against the police to stop them from confiscating any further copies.
Sapire reserved judgment until early Saturday morning. Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini then banned both The Guardian and the independent monthly The Nation. Dlamini invoked Section 3 of the Proscribed Publications Act of 1968, which gives the attorney general authority to ban publications that do not conform to “Swazi morality and ideals.”
Both The Guardian and The Nation have been outspoken in their criticism of the monarchy, particularly King Mswati III, who rules his kingdom by decree. On May 2, Thulani Mthethwa, editor of the Guardian, was picked up by police from his office, driven to police headquarters, and questioned about his paper’s coverage of the royal family (see May 2 case).
On May 18, the ban on The Nation was lifted after a Mbabane court ruled the ban unconstitutional. The court also ordered the government to cover the newspaper’s legal costs.
On May 22, Swazi police confiscated more than 5,000 copies of The Nation from the publication’s premises and from retail stores in Manzini and Mbabane, Swaziland’s two main cities.
On May 23, the two newspapers were again banned through a legal notice in which Dlamini stated that both were operating illegally and were “prejudicial to the interests of public order.”
On Friday June 1, the ban on The Nation was lifted after an informal meeting between the attorney general and a senior representative of The Nation. According to The Nation, Dlamini did not request concessions from the publication and seemed to be acting out of embarrassment at the negative publicity generated by the government’s campaign against the independent press.
The Guardian, meanwhile, won its first legal round against the government when Chief Justice Sapire ordered the state to file an affidavit explaining why the publication had been proscribed and why the legal notice banning the publication should not be set aside.
On June 7, Sapire ruled that the government’s affidavit was not convincing. By then, The Guardian had been out of circulation for two months, although the Internet version, which was unaffected by the ban, continued to appear.
On August 31, High Court judge J. Annandale declared Dlamini’s notice “invalid,” allowing The Guardian to resume publication. In early November, the government appealed the ruling. The dispute remained unresolved at year’s end.
Hulasizwe Mkhabela, Times of Swaziland
Mkhabela, a photographer at the Times of Swaziland, was assaulted and beaten by police officers in Manzini, Swaziland’s largest town. The journalist was covering a press conference held by leaders of the Federation of Trade Unions and the outlawed Democratic Alliance (SDA).
Mkhabela was attacked after he took pictures of the officers’ heavy-handed treatment of reporters at the scene. Many journalists were threatened by officers, while others were forcibly dragged out of the conference hall. Mkhabela was beaten with a stick before he managed to escape.
Political parties are illegal in Swaziland. One of the country’s leading reformist politicians, SDA head Mario Masuku, was arrested and jailed earlier in the month on sedition charges. Security forces often harass journalists covering the SDA and other opposition groups.
Mkabela filed a formal complaint against the police, but the case remained unresolved at year’s end.