Media freedom advocates have criticised Swaziland’s Supreme Court for awarding record libel damages against the kingdom’s only privately-owned daily newspaper in favour of the Senate President Gelane Simelane-Zwane.
Africa Echo Ltd, which runs the Times of Swaziland group, was ordered to pay Simelane-Zwane, who is better known in the kingdom as Gelane Zwane, E550,000 (US$50,000) after it published stories stating that she had lied about her birth name.
The Swazi News newspaper had reported in 2009 that Zwane was not born a Simelane and this would make her ineligible for her then office as acting chief of KoNtshingila. At the time she was engaged in a battle to retain the chieftaincy which depended on her being a Simelane.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Swaziland chapter said in a statement, ‘This recent ruling has sent further chills through Swaziland's already heavily censored and fearful media.’
It added, ‘The three judges who handed down the ruling - Nigerian-born Esta Ota; American Bar Association member Stanley Moore; and Lesotho-born chief justice Michael Ramodibedi - emphasised the high-status of Simelane-Zwane in Swazi politics and society, suggesting the more powerful one is the more they deserve from a defamation case.’
MISA added, ‘In silencing the media the judiciary is ultimately harming the prospects of the nation. Without open and unfettered debate, progress will only benefit the fortunate few at the top.
‘In suppressing sincerely held opinions or inconvenient truths in the name of respect, the judiciary is displaying remarkable disrespect for the principles of natural justice and tolerance. If freedom of speech is continually trampled on, the image of Swaziland in the eyes of the world will continue to decline. It is not the so-called “disrespectful” or “offensive” speech that causes the problems; it is the criminalizing and silencing of that speech, of that open debate, which causes the problems.
‘In handing out disproportionate rulings in defamation cases in the name of protecting the powerful, the judiciary is harming Swaziland’s constitution, which should be protecting free speech and media freedom.’
Reporters Without Borders called the award of damages ‘exorbitant’ and added it was ‘tantamount to a death sentence’ for the Times of Swaziland.
Cléa Kahn-Sriber, head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk, said in a statement, ‘This damages award, the largest ever made against a Swazi publication in a libel case, is out of all proportion to the harm the newspaper is alleged to have caused the plaintiff, said. In the light of the financial situation of Swaziland’s media, one can only regard this exorbitant award as a government attempt to throttle the country’s only independent daily. We call for this ruling to be overturned as its sole aim is to gag the media.’
The three Supreme Court judges giving their judgement said the newspaper had been reckless in not checking its facts before publishing the stories.
POLICE THREAT TO ANTI-CHIEF PROTEST
SENATE PRESIDENT CENSORSHIP THREAT