Swaziland prime minister threatens to censor columnists

New York, October 22, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a recent statement from Swaziland’s Prime Minister, Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini, announcing his intention to create a law requiring newspaper columnists to seek permission before they write critically about the government.

Dlamini’s statement appeared in the Tuesday edition of state daily Swazi Observer, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa and local journalists. Dlamini accused news columnists of tarnishing their country’s image and taking payments from unnamed foreign interests, according to the same sources.

No further details were disclosed. The prime minister’s statement did not include any specific details about what the law would require, how it would be enforced or when it might be enacted.

“The prime minister’s vague threat to create a censorship law is a step backwards for Swaziland,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “Requiring columnists to receive prior approval for their work would be a direct violation of Swaziland’s Constitution, which guarantees press freedom.”

Such a law would target a handful of weekend columnists who often criticize government decisions and policies, according to Jabu Matsebula, secretary and coordinator of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum (SEF). Government pressure has already forced at least three columnists for the leading independent newspaper Times of Swaziland–Mfomfo Nkambule, Mario Masuku and Tulani Twala–to abandon their columns, according to CPJ research.

The prime minister’s statement follows death threats in July against critical journalists from a senior member of Swaziland’s royal family, Matsebula said, and has created a climate of self-censorship. “The statement is actually suggesting that newspaper owners should not allow columnists whose views are not in favor of the government,” he told CPJ. “It is actually bringing pressure on newspaper publishers, who rely on the government for advertising–government being one of the biggest advertisers in the market that most newspapers cannot do without, especially in Swaziland’s small economy.”