Attacks on the Press 2003: Swaziland

King Mswati III, ruler of Africa’s only absolute monarchy, retained tight control over the media in this tiny southern African nation in 2003. In April, newly appointed Information Minister Abednego Ntshangase announced a censorship policy for state media, saying that “the national television and radio stations are not going to cover anything that has a negative bearing on government.” Ntshangase specifically indicated that state broadcasters would not be allowed to cover the controversy surrounding the government’s plans to purchase a luxury jet for King Mswati.

The ban on negative content was directed toward the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services, which operates the only news-carrying radio channels in the country, and Swazi TV. Both are state-run. While local journalists concede that state media had little editorial freedom to begin with, many feared that the minister’s statements could lead to a crackdown on the tiny private press.

In late July, an official from the Justice Ministry announced that the government would pass legislation allowing it to force journalists to reveal their sources. Heavy fines and/or jail time would be imposed on journalists who refused. However, the attorney general later denied the existence of such an initiative.

The repressive Media Council Bill, which was proposed in the late 1990s and calls for the creation of a regulatory council with punitive powers, remained shelved in 2003. However, journalists fear that it could be revived. In an effort to stave off the reintroduction of the bill in Parliament, public and private media took steps toward self-regulation. With help from the United Nations Development Program and the British government, state and private journalists drafted a charter for a Media Complaints Commission. In April, the charter was presented to representatives from Swaziland’s Editors’ Forum, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, and the Swaziland National Association of Journalists. The journalists agreed to select a board to serve on the commission, and to adopt their first journalistic code of ethics. Both the code and the commission remain works in progress.

Lack of financial resources and credibility issues continue to pose problems for the Swazi media. In the spring, Phesheya Dube, a journalist for state-owned radio, pretended to broadcast reports from Baghdad, while in fact he never left Swaziland. Making it sound as if he was calling from the war zone, Dube culled all of his information from foreign press and wire service reports. Once the ruse was discovered, Information Minister Ntshangase criticized Dube for making Swaziland “an object of scorn.” However, no disciplinary action was taken against the journalist, and he was not fired.

Recently, community radio initiatives have challenged the government’s monopoly on broadcast media. One pilot station, based in the central Lubombo Region, obtained several temporary permits to broadcast. Local journalists fault unclear licensing procedures for the Lubombo station’s sporadic activity but agree that licenses for community stations–even if they are not news-based–could open the way for more private ownership.

In the fall, King Mswati received a draft constitution written by the Constitutional Drafting Committee–a project many years in the making. On November 14, he postponed its approval until the document could be translated into Siswati. The constitution had not been adopted by year’s end. The draft, designed to balance the royal establishment’s desire to retain power against growing domestic and international demands for democratic reform, guarantees some civil liberties, including press freedom, while preserving the king’s ability to overrule laws. The constitution also preserves the country’s long-standing ban on political parties. Local independent journalists view the document with mixed feelings and hope that it will be subject to further reform, with input from civil society and pro-democracy advocates.

Swazi journalists were also cautious in evaluating the outcome of parliamentary elections, which were held in October. While the poll ushered in several progressive new ministers, Parliament remains mainly an advisory body to the king, who can dissolve it at his whim.

A Commonwealth election monitoring team criticized Swaziland’s lack of press freedom and expressed disappointment at government-owned Radio Swaziland’s reporting on the elections, saying that restricted campaign coverage reduced voters’ knowledge of the candidates and harmed their ability to hold candidates accountable.