Swaziland must overturn editor’s 2-year sentence, fine

New York, April 23, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Swaziland’s appeals court to overturn last week’s conviction of an editor for “contempt by scandalizing the court” in relation to two articles criticizing the country’s chief justice.

The High Court of Swaziland on April 17 sentenced Bhekitemba Makhubu, editor of privately owned The Nation magazine, to a fine of US$20,000 or two years imprisonment for comments published about Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael M. Ramodibedi in 2009 and 2010.

Although the judgment was handed down more than a year after the case was heard, in February 2012, Makhubu was given only three days to pay the fine. His legal team lodged an appeal Monday, staying the judgment until the appeal is heard.

“We condemn the court’s heavy-handed interpretation of Swaziland’s contempt of court provisions and its prosecution of one of the kingdom’s few independent media voices,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. “Swaziland’s constitution protects freedom of expression and fair criticism of the judiciary–we would urge the appeals court to review Bheki Makhubu’s case with these provisions in mind.”

Makhubu’s lawyer, Bob Sigwane, told CPJ that he did not understand the rush by the courts to impose a fine payable within three days. He said there also seemed to be some confusion whether the case was a civil or criminal matter, but said he had successfully lodged the appeal papers with the public prosecutor’s office.

Swaziland’s court of appeal sits in May and November, and according to both Sigwane and the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), it is likely that Makhubu’s appeal will be heard only in November.

In a 91-page judgment, the court found that one of Makhubu’s articles constituted
“contempt of court,” while the other was a “scurrilous abuse of the chief justice.” One article had praised Judge Thomas Masuku for his opinion, dissenting from two other Supreme Court judges, in cases dealing with evictions on land held by King Mswati III. The other opinion piece had criticized Chief Justice Ramodibedi for what it called arrogance and lack of decorum following statements he had made.

Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, national director of the MISA-Swaziland, said the judgment and sentence of Makhubu was unconstitutional. “It shows there is no rule of law in Swaziland,” he told CPJ.

Hlatshwayo said media houses in Swaziland have been outspoken in their criticism of the court’s ruling, with the Swazi Observer, a daily publication owned by an investment fund controlled by King Mswati III, the absolute monarch of Swaziland, publishing a blank opinion piece under the title ‘Dear Judge Maphalala’ –a reference to the high court judge, Bheki Maphalala, who imposed the heavy penalty.