Mbabane – According to Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, which published its 2022 World Press Freedom Index on May 3, 2022, Eswatini is among the worst countries in as far as the freedom of the media is concerned.
The report notes that the government exercises total control over the broadcast media. Almost all media outlets are controlled, directly or indirectly, by the state. “The level of interference in news content is considerable. The authorities do not hesitate to spy on journalists and infiltrate newsrooms. The Minister of Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) is none other than one of the king’s daughters. The king’s speech-writer is also the editor of the country’s oldest and most popular newspaper.
Any criticism of the monarchy is liable to lead to a trial and heavy penalties. Dozens of draconian laws muzzle freedom of expression and information, and the judicial system is often used to undermine journalism. Under a proposed cybercrime law, “fake news” and content damaging the country’s image would be punishable by fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars and up to 10 years in prison,” reads the report in part.
It also states that there is almost no viable way of producing independent news and information because the very existence of media outlets is conditioned on their support for the monarchy.
“Self-imposed exile is the only option for journalists who want to express themselves freely. The all-pervasive culture of secrecy makes it hard to access information. Most media outlets were heavily criticised for supporting the monarchy during violent pro-democracy protests in 2021.
Journalists are often arrested and subjected to violence. In 2021, for example, two South African journalists were threatened at gunpoint and arrested during a protest. In 2020, two website editors were arrested after criticising the king and had to flee abroad. One of them was tortured during detention. In 2017, an investigative journalist fled to South Africa after receiving death threats in connection with an article about the king. His newspaper was shut down on the king’s orders.”
Meanwhile, founder and Editor of online publication Swaziland News, Zweli Martin Dlamini, popularly known as ‘Zwemart’, has been listed a specified entity and he has responded to these developments. Not only him; the online publication has also been declared a proscribed entity – and this is with immediate effect.
Dlamini is currently exiled in South Africa after fleeing Eswatini in 2020. The two have been declared terrorist entities by Prime Minister (PM) Cleopas Sipho Dlamini, through Legal Notice No. 261 of 2022.
The PM has proscribed the two entities by invoking the Suppression of Terrorism Act (Act No. 3 of 2008). Reads the Legal Notice: “In exercise of the powers conferred on me by Section 28 (2) of the Suppression of Terrorism Act, 2008, I Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Eswatini, declared Zweli Martin Dlamini and Swaziland News (PTY) (LTD) to be specified entities with immediate effect in that these entities knowingly facilitate the commission of terrorism acts.”
Swaziland News and ‘Zwemart’ join the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO), Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) and Swaziland Liberation Army (Umbane) on the list of proscribed entities.
PUDEMO, SWAYOCO, SSN and Umbane were proscribed in 2008 by the then Prime Minister, the late Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, who also invoked Section 28 of the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
In response, Zwemart said: “Declaring the Swaziland News and its Editor as terrorists in (is) an attempt by the illegitimate Eswatini Government to silence the voices of emaSwati crying in the political wilderness for freedom.It is one of the many attempts by the government and the King to silence the independent media. As mentioned before, Swaziland News will continue publishing critical articles and holding those in power accountable.”
A report by Amnesty International noted that Human Rights Lawyer Thulani Maseko and the Nation Magazine Editor Bheki Makhubu were arrested in March 2014 after The Nation published two articles by Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu in February, in which they raised concerns about judicial independence and political accountability in Eswatini. They were charged with contempt of court and remanded in custody after highly irregular legal proceedings. On March 18 Amnesty International condemned those proceedings as a violation of international human rights standards and with no basis in Swaziland’s domestic law. Despite a ruling of Judge Mumcy Dlamini on April 6 which led to the brief release of the two men from custody, they were re-arrested, remanded back in custody on April 10 and then subjected to unfair trial proceedings on contempt of court charges.
Makhubu has already been facing an onerous legal process, following his conviction at High Court on two counts of criminal contempt of court in connection with the publication of two articles questioning the independence of the country’s judiciary. Amnesty International had condemned the ruling which had been immediately followed by a sentence of two year’s imprisonment, if the editor failed to pay a fine equivalent to nearly US$45,000 (over E700 000) within three days. The sentence was averted when his lawyers managed to file appeal documents before that deadline. His appeal was heard on May 30. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction on one count and upheld the conviction on the second count but overturned the sentence (which was either pay the equivalent of US$45,000 within three days or serve two years imprisonment.) The Supreme Court substituted another sentence on this upheld conviction: (i) a fine of the equivalent of nearly US$3,000 (close to E50 000) against The Nation magazine, payable within three months; (ii) a sentence of three months’ imprisonment against Makhubu, suspended on condition that he is not convicted of a similar offence. Maseko also faced repressive charges under the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act brought against him 2009.