Thursday, November 26, 2015


The Swaziland regime regularly uses the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) to stop free speech in the kingdom, the Commonwealth has been told ahead of its heads of government meeting.

The STA is ‘regularly used’ by the police to interfere in trade union activities, Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) said in a submission to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), ahead of the meeting in Malta on 27-29 November 2015.

It said King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, ‘must be held to account for its serious breaches of the Commonwealth Charter’.

In its submission, ACTSA, which is the successor to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, said, ‘A cornerstone of any State seeking to demonstrate its dedication to human rights is the ability of its citizens to exercise freedom of speech. In Swaziland, freedom of speech is denied.

It added, ‘A key instrument used to curtail freedom of expression in Swaziland is the STA. The STA has been widely criticised since its enactment because of its vague definitions and broad designation of ministerial power as well as its inconsistencies with Swaziland’s own constitution and Swaziland’s obligations under international and regional human rights law. This includes condemnation by the International Bar Association and Amnesty International.

ACTSA added, ‘The STA is regularly used by the police to legitimise interference with trade union activities. For instance during the 2014 May Day celebrations organised by the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), Mario Masuko, President of PUDEMO, and Maxwell Dlamini, Secretary General of the Swaziland Youth Congress, were arrested and charged under the STA after delivering speeches in which they questioned the socio-economic governance of the country. The charges brought against them meant that if they were found guilty, they would have faced a sentence of up to 15 years of hard labour. 

Over a year passed with both men in detention and with no verdict having been passed. Finally, on 14 July 2015, the two men were released on bail, with conditions forbidding them from addressing public rallies. Whilst no longer incarcerated, the charges against both men have not been dropped.

Additionally, on 17 and 18 March 2014, charges of criminal contempt were brought against human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and editor in chief of the Nation, Bheki Makhubu. Both men were charged following publication of articles in the Nation that questioned the reasoning behind and circumstances of a case before the High Court of Swaziland. The state action taken against them was subject to condemnation by UN experts in June 2014. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported concerns that the detention of both men was related to the legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression as recognised in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland. 

The OHCHR stated that it was of the view that the detention and trial of Maseko and Makhubu for the exercise of their right to express an opinion on the court case was counter to Swaziland’s international human rights obligations. The two men were subsequently sentenced to two years in prison without benefit or bail where the usual sentence is 30 days. 

Following much international condemnation and the dismissal of the judge who had imprisoned them, Bheki Makhubu was finally released on 30 June 2015 having spent 447 days in prison, the prosecution having decided not to oppose his appeal against conviction. The prosecution adopted a similar approach in the case of Thulani Maseko who was also released in July of this year.

The use of oppressive laws to limit freedom of speech is not limited simply to the use of existing legislation; there are also instances of unhelpful commentary by government officials that is indicative of the repressive nature of the Swazi State. For example, in August 2014, Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, the Swazi prime minister, made a speech in Parliament in which he publically threatened Sipho Gumedze from Lawyers for Human Rights and Vincent Ncongwane, the General Secretary of TUCOSWA, by suggesting that members of their constituency “must strangle them.”

These comments were made following their attendance at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington DC.

These actions are in contrast to the Charter that commits the Commonwealth to ‘peaceful open dialogue and the free flow of information … through a free and responsible media… to enhance democratic traditions and strengthening the democratic processes’.

The Commonwealth Observer mission in 2013 heard testimony that a number of journalists critical of the government had lost their jobs, faced legal action or jail, with the consequence that the practice of self-censorship had grown amongst reporters. The media are Swaziland is overwhelming controlled by the state, and thus, ultimately, by the king. 

The repeated arrests of the editor of one of the very few independent publications that has been critical of the state and its institutions is clearly intended to intimidate those who would seek to challenge the current regime.

The recommendation made by the Commonwealth Observer mission urging the Government of Swaziland to encourage and facilitate private media has apparently failed to inspire action. Instead, efforts to intimidate and restrict the media in fulfilling its legitimate role are ongoing. 

Beyond this, the much-criticised STA is being used to suppress political dialogue and thus scupper democratic processes. We believe that CMAG must not be a bystander whilst there are ongoing, serious and persistent violations of fundamental Commonwealth values.

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