In the early morning of February 25, 2020, police in the Manzini region of Swaziland raided the home of Zweli Martin Dlamini, the editor of the privately owned news website Swaziland News, and arrested him, according to media reports and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Police told Dlamini that they were investigating him for suspected sedition and seized laptops, cellphones, hard drives, and other electronic devices before taking him to police headquarters in the capital, Mbabane, Dlamini said.
At the headquarters, officers questioned Dlamini about two articles he published in Swaziland News about King Mswati III, one published on February 3 accusing the king of lying about the political and economic situation in the country, and another from February 21, accusing the king of promoting a cultural ceremony where women could be sexually abused.
Dlamini said that officers handcuffed him to a bench and tried to suffocate him by putting a plastic bag over his head, saying that an officer told him to "forget about your rights.”
Police released Dlamini without charge after holding him for about six hours, but did not return his laptop or other devices, he said. He fled Swaziland to South Africa the next day, February 26, he said.
In a statement given to the South African Broadcasting Corporation on March 8, Swaziland police spokesperson Phindile Vilakati said authorities were investigating the circumstances around Dlamini’s arrest and that, while she was not aware of his allegations of abuse in detention, Dlamini could report it to authorities.
On April 9, Dlamini’s lawyers filed a complaint with the country’s Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration, which CPJ reviewed, accusing the police of “torture and humiliation” and alleging that they violated Dlamini’s right of expression and right to a fair trial.
The complaint also included a medical report dated February 28 by a doctor whom Dlamini consulted in South Africa, which noted that Dlamini showed signs of assault and had nasal irritation, difficulty breathing, and chest pains from the attempted suffocation. Dlamini said he thought the officers may have put a chemical irritant in the bag they placed over his head.
On April 10, one day after that complaint was filed, Swaziland News published a report questioning the king’s health amid the pandemic.
Also that day, police raided Dlamini’s home again and confiscated material including contracts for employees of Swaziland News and took the journalist’s wife, Nompendulo Nokuthula Mkhonta, into custody, leaving their two young children alone in their home, according to Dlamini and an affidavit filed by his wife in a court application against further harassment by the police, which CPJ reviewed.
Officers took Mkhonta to the Mbabane police headquarters where they questioned her about Dlamini’s whereabouts, slapped her across the face, and called her “unpalatable words,” according to the affidavit. She alleged that officers also handcuffed her and covered her head with a plastic bag to suffocate her.
The affidavit says that the authorities released Mkhonta without charge after about three hours. The document states that police did not present a search warrant during their raid.
On April 16, Dlamini was due to appear in court as part of an assault case stemming from a dispute with a family member, he said. He told CPJ he missed that date because he is still in South Africa, and that a warrant for his arrest on contempt charges had been filed. Police previously arrested him on February 7 and held him until February 10 for failing to appear in court in that case, according to Dlamini and news reports.
Dlamini said that he believed the case had been “hijacked for political motives.”
In a statement sent to CPJ on April 30, government spokesman Sabelo Dlamini, who is not related to the journalist, disputed that Dlamini was wanted for criticizing the king in his February articles.
“No journalist in this country is wanted by the police for criticizing authorities,” he said, alleging that authorities were instead seeking Dlamini’s for the April 10 report about the king’s health.
According to an April 10 warrant, which CPJ reviewed, police are seeking Dlamini’s arrest for allegedly violating regulations passed in March, which penalize anyone found spreading false news about the virus with up to five years in jail or a fine of 20,000 emalangeni ($1,082).
However, that warrant states that Dlamini allegedly violated those regulations on April 1 by spreading “unauthentic information.” The only article related to COVID-19 posted by Swaziland News on that date was a summary of a press conference given by the country's health minister, according to CPJ’s review of the outlet’s content.
Responding to a question about the allegations of torture in the journalist’s complaint, Sabelo Dlamini told CPJ via messaging app that Dlamini had a right to seek legal recourse to prove his allegations.
Dlamini previously fled Swaziland to South Africa in December 2017 after claiming he had received a death threat from a local businessman, and his then newspaper, Swaziland Shopping, was shut down by the government, the journalist told CPJ at the time and as was reported by regional news outlets.
He returned to Swaziland in November 2018, after both the businessman who threatened him and the prime minister had died, he said.
Sabelo Dlamini accused the journalist of lying about those 2017 events, saying he was able to return to Swaziland and was not arrested despite continuing to be highly critical of the king and the government, and "using his platform to a pursue a political agenda of regime change.”