The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) monitored the coverage of the Swazi protests in the Times of Swaziland, the only independent newspaper group in the kingdom, yesterday (12 April 2011) – the first day of the protests.
In this report, MISA concludes, ‘the protesters were not once given an opportunity to respond to the many accusations from the government / traditionalists saying the protesters are law-breakers, power hungry, lazy, wanting to bring down the economy, terrorists and mercenaries. There was not one story that allowed the protesters to explain their cause and, in turn, criticise the government’.
This is its report.
Times disappoints with protest coverage
The only national newspaper that can claim to be independent, Times of Swaziland, disappoints with its unbalanced coverage of the pro-democracy protests.
12 April 2011 – On a day when pro-democracy protesters are taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to call for democratic governance, the only independent newspaper in the country, the Times of Swaziland, has managed to give government almost free reign to spread their propaganda and discredit the protesters.
Here is a breakdown of what the Times reported about the protest in that day’s edition. First, we list what was said from the government/traditionalist camp and second, what was said from the protester/progressive side.
From the government/traditionalists:
1. ‘Bus owners shun protest march’, page 1
This headline suggests bus owners do not sympathise with the protesters and do not support their cause. But in fact, the story explains that transport operators were “given an order not to let trade unions hire their buses”. The headline has the effect of isolating the protesters and making them appear without support, when in fact the transport operator’s decision to suspend operations was clearly taken after serious government pressure. ‘Buses shut down’ would be a more accurate headline.
2. ‘Plans to overthrow govt uncovered – police chief’, page 2.
The Police Commissioner claims there are “people hiding in the forest…waiting with revolutionary-like behaviour”. He says they plan to “hijack today’s protest in their quest for power.” The Times fails to verify his claims. It is a single-sourced story; no one is invited to challenge the Commissioner. The Commissioner brands the protest “illegal”, thereby portraying the protesters as law-breakers. The Times gives no explanation of why the protest is illegal and does not question how the government can deny citizens their right to freedom of assembly.
3. ‘Power hungry individuals behind the uprising’, page 4
A Facebook group calling themselves “traditionalists” say the protesters are “lazy individuals who look down on the monarchy”. Protesters are not given a chance to respond to the accusations.
4. ‘TV’s warning to protesters’, page 4
The acting Ludzinzini Governor claims the unions are “encouraging a lawless society” and says Swaziland needs people “who are focused on helping to improve the economy”, thereby insinuating that the protesters want to bring down the economy. There are no other voices to challenge the Governor’s inflammatory comments.
5. ‘These people are terrorists – DPM’, page 5
The Deputy Prime Minister refers to the protesters as “those who want to cause fighting.” He says they are “terrorists and mercenaries.” No one from the progressive camp is given an opportunity to challenge his remarks.
6. ‘Protect His Majesty from being insulted in the SA media’, page 5
Three senators complain that foreign media reports on the protest are abusive and insulting towards the king. One journalist “even called the king by his name instead of his respectful title”. There is no explanation of what the foreign media reports said.
From the protesters/progressives:
1. ‘Bus owners shun protest march’, page 1
The Secretary-General of SNAT, the teachers union, says the police are trying to “sabotage” the protest by ordering public transport operators not to ferry protesters.
2. ‘Unions claim their leaders have gone missing’, page 3
A union lawyer confirms that four union leaders have been detained by police. The headline uses the word ‘claim’ which gives the impression what the unions are saying may not be true. And yet the story itself says the four leaders have not been heard from since calling their lawyer to report that they were in police detention.
3. ‘3,000 COSATU members for blockade’, page 3
The Congress of South African Trade Unions says they are marching to the Swaziland border in solidarity with the protesters.
4. ‘Wandile Dludlu under ‘tight security’’, page 4
A union leader complains about being followed by the police. The Times says he may have been arrested later that day, but they are unable to verify this.
In all the protest coverage for the edition (12 April 2011), the protesters were not once given an opportunity to respond to the many accusations from the government/traditionalists saying the protesters are law-breakers, power hungry, lazy, wanting to bring down the economy, terrorists and mercenaries. There was not one story that allowed the protesters to explain their cause and, in turn, criticise the government.
Granted the protesters may have been given opportunities in the past to put their case in the Times and no doubt will be given more such opportunities in the future. But to have, on the very day of the protests, such an overwhelming number of government sources freely slamming the protesters and putting forward uncorroborated claims, while at the same time failing to present even one challenge from the protesters is a disservice to journalism. The headlines were particularly misleading and one-sided. MISA remains hopeful that the Times can do better.
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