The Swazi media has, for the most part, been silent about – and at times even tacitly supported – King Mswati III's human rights abuses. And the foreign media hasn't been much help either. It's about time journalists speak up for freedom of expression, not to mention democracy.
A South African journalist friend once remarked that Swaziland was frozen in history. He wondered why Swazis couldn’t see what the French and the rest of the world saw centuries ago. After acquainting himself with the challenges facing Swaziland, the journalist could not understand how the world media and human rights organisations do not expose the atrocities that happen daily in this kingdom.
In jest, I told him that the world sees Swaziland as a cultural museum, only worth visits by tourists who want to witness firsthand what primitive Africa was and still is. I pointed out that stories about King Mswati III and his private life make it into the South African media, while stories about the political atrocities he commits every day are neglected. As a recent example, the story of a minister’s infidelity with the king’s wife made headlines in South African newspapers. To me, this means the media gives the world an impression that the problems facing Swaziland have more to do with the king's lifestyle than with an archaic and rotten political system that stifles any form of dissent and opposition. When King Mswati III jails, tortures and drives his political nemeses into exile, the South African media in particular, and the world media in general, do not find this worth headline news – even though a completely different approach is taken when it involves Zimbabwe.
But, of course, failure to expose Mswati III’s autocratic rule cannot be blamed on the foreign media alone. Some of us locally should also take a fair share of the blame. In my view, we have at best conveniently looked the other way when the government unleashes untold suffering on the king's political enemies; at worse, we have tacitly endorsed and supported such actions. There is clear evidence that we have not played our part in demanding democracy in Swaziland. Neither have we demanded our right to freedom of speech, as enshrined in the (admittedly farcical) constitution.
To this day, as many as 31 unfriendly media laws exist in Swaziland, according to a 2003 study by the Media Institute for Southern Africa. Although the constitution has a bill of rights that enshrines freedom of expression and freedom of the media, none of the unfriendly laws have been repealed. Instead, new laws that further seek to restrict the media environment have been introduced, the most recent ones being the internationally condemned Anti Terrorism Act of 2008 and the proposed Media Commission Bill. In fact, the advent of the Anti-Terrorism Act stifles all hopes of journalists ever enjoying media freedom.
To our credit, we have tried – admittedly in piece-meal and half-hearted attempts – to fight for media freedom in Swaziland. But we have failed to realise that all problems in Swaziland (political, social and economic) are tied to a very rotten system of governance called “Tinkhundla”. This is the Swazi system that allows only individual candidates – not representatives of a political party – to stand for election. Tinkhundla entrenches the power to govern with the king, who appoints 10 of the 55 directly elected members of parliament and 20 of the 30 members of senate. Under this system, the prime minister is appointed by the king, and no political parties are allowed. This system also ensures that all governing powers are held by the king, who exercises them through the prime minister.
In answering why the media is not playing any role in fostering democracy in Swaziland, understanding the political economy and ownership of the media is also important. Swaziland has two relatively major newspapers, the Times of Swaziland group of newspapers; and the government-owned Swazi Observer and its sister newspaper, the Weekend Observer. The Times is owned by the Loufler family while the Swazi Observer is owned by Tibiyo TakaNgwane, the royal family piggybank. There are, of course, other small publications like the Swazi Mirror and Ingwazi, but their combined circulation does not exceed 20,000.
The Times has been fighting an almost lone battle in exposing corruption within the government, with only the more robust The Nation Magazine supporting its mission. The newspaper has the scars to show for it. In 1999 its editor Bheki Makhubu (who now edits The Nation Magazine) was sacked at the behest of the monarch after he published a story that did not go down well in royal echelons of power. The story was about the king's latest fiancée being a high-school dropout. That this was true was not disputed, but Makhubu faced charges of criminal defamation for being disrespectful to the monarchy.
Recently, Times Sunday associate editor Ken Rowley was sacked, again on instruction of the monarchy, after “slipping” through a foreign media report that described the king’s rule as “authoritarian”. Several times editors of both these newspapers have been called in, either by the prime minister or the king, to explain why certain stories were published. In fact, the Swazi Observer was closed in 2001 after publishing stories of which the monarchy disapproved.
It is quite understandable why most editors, fearing for their own safety and job security, began to take a conformist line. It is starting to become obvious now to say that all media houses have become lapdogs and operate under the government’s direct and indirect control. But I argue that the Swazi media must put up a fight and not be cowed into submission. South African media have taken a united position against the proposed media appeals tribunal and are fighting against it to the bitter end. We could take a cue from them.
The media should fight for democracy so that a space for media freedom can be opened and enjoyed. But the media cannot hope to fight for freedom of expression in isolation from the political problems facing Swaziland. In fact, I am convinced that curtailing media freedom is at the core of how the state ensures its rule is never challenged. The media must begin to stand on the side of the people and demand democracy. It must not use the tired cliché of being “neutral”. As a friend reminded me recently, the hottest place in hell shall be reserved for those who claim to be neutral in the face of injustice.
“The continued fear of the unknown has given birth to self-censorship and at times has deprived citizens of information, hence we continue walking in the dark… The continued harassment and intimidation has given birth to a media that is not vibrant, critical and telling it like it is. The media must, therefore, rise above all this and offer that spark of hope and become a voice of the voiceless and refuse to be silenced by any force,” remarked Comfort Mabuza, Misa Swazi chapter director, last year during a meeting to discuss the challenges faced by media practitioners in Swaziland. He couldn't have put it any better.
Vincent Ncongwane, general secretary of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, has a solution. Speaking at a Media Workers Union of Swaziland workshop last year, Ncongwane reckoned journalists will begin to see the need for change the day they start to actively participate in their own trade unions. In fact, Ncongwane argued that a union would not only transform the consciousness of media workers, but would also help improve their own working conditions.
“Journalists facing challenges in the oppressive atmosphere currently obtaining in Swaziland have unions as their bet,” Ncongwane said. “Journalists need to inform themselves about the basics of trade unionism and relevant legislation to be able to write from a position of knowledge.”
The future of media freedom is intrinsically linked with democracy. Perhaps that is the reason the Mail and Guardian has long realised it must help promote democracy in Zimbabwe. In Swaziland, as protests rage on this week calling for the government to resign, the media must clearly stand on the side of the people. FAM
Manqoba Nxumalo is a senior investigative journalist at the Times of Swaziland. He is also secretary-general of the Media Workers Union of Swaziland. The opinions here are his own, and do not reflect those of the newspaper for which he works, nor the union to which he belongs.