This week in the mountain Kingdom of Swaziland, the state-owned daily Swazi Observer reported that an official has apologized for summarily dismissing a female reporter from Parliament nearly two weeks ago. It was the latest in a controversy sparked by allegations of gender discrimination against Mantoe Phakathi, an award-winning journalist with the private monthly The Nation.
“As a former media practitioner myself, who ascribes to the values of freedom of the press, I sincerely apologize in my capacity as the media coordinator to Ms. Phakathi and The Nation for the embarrassment,” Ndvuna Dlamini, the clerk of Swaziland’s House of Assembly said. On February 6, during the annual opening of Parliament, Dlamini prevented Phakathi from taking photographs of King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute ruler, who was delivering a royal address to the chamber.
Initial reports from the Media Institute of Southern Africa said Phakati was harassed because she was female and had violated a dress code for women in Parliament. Married women are expected to cover their heads as a show of respect, but Phakati told me she was not married. The issue of dress code was never brought up to her attention, she said.
Female reporters covering the royal family and Parliament must wear “only skirts and dresses,” not pants, Phakati said, adding that the rules were not always enforced.
According to the clerk, Phakati was dismissed for security reasons, saying that she was not accredited to take photos of the royal family inside the chamber. “I reject the allegation of sexism and gender discrimination with the contempt it deserves,” he told the Observer.
An eyewitness to the incident was reporter Brian Mohamed of Swazi News, a weekend publication of the leading independent Times of Swaziland and one of a handful of journalists with exclusive access to the king. Mohamed said Phakathi might not have been advised of special security arrangements that day, including the need for an exclusive photo identification pass granting access to the king in the chamber.
But Phakathi told me she did have the right pass, and was nevertheless turned away. She said it was not the first incident involving a confrontation between the clerk and her newspaper. Her editor, Bheki Makhubu, accused Dlamini of politically motivated harassment. “We are not a popular paper with the authorities,” he told me, describing his newspaper as “the boldest, but the smallest” in Swaziland. Nevertheless, Phakathi was able to photograph the king outside the chamber shortly after the incident that day, according to local journalists.
Just three days after the king’s address before Parliament, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini threatened to charge anyone who criticizes the royal speech under the country’s Sedition and Subversive Activities Act.
The statement was in response to criticism by media commentators, including outspoken columnist Mfomfo Nkhambule of the Times of Swaziland, that the monarch’s speech had failed to address crucial national issues, including the world’s highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (at 26.1 percent, according to United Nations statistics), and increasing poverty.