Government in Swaziland has closed down a newspaper after it fell foul of one of more than 30 laws in the kingdom restricting the media.
Swaziland Shopping, a newspaper aimed at businesses, was told to close because it did not conform to the Books and Newspapers Act 1963. The newspaper’s registration under the Act had been declined by the Swazi Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (MICT).
Swaziland is ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Political parties are banned from taking part in elections and groups advocating for democracy are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported on Friday (15 December 2017), MICT said Swaziland Shopping had not submitted a raft of technical information, including profiles of the staff and their qualifications.
Media censorship in Swaziland is heavy. All broadcast media except one small under-resourced television station Channel S is state controlled. Channel S has publicly stated it would always support the King.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa once estimated there were more than 30 pieces of legislation in Swaziland to restrict operations of the media. They date back to before the present Swaziland Constitution came into effect in 2005. Although the Constitution allows for freedom of speech and the media none of these laws have been repealed.
Among the laws restricting media freedom are laws on national security and sedition. The Official Secrets Act, 1968 prohibits any person who holds office under the Government from communicating ‘any code, password, sketch, plan, model, article, note, document or information’ to an unauthorised person. To convict a person under this Act, it is not necessary to prove that the accused was guilty of any particular act, but merely that “it appears, from the circumstances of the case or the conduct of the accused, that his purpose was a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of Swaziland”.
The Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, 1938 states that a speech or publication is seditious if it is intended to bring the king, his heirs, successors, or government into contempt or encourage hatred of them. The Act has been described as a ‘draconian piece of legislation, the primary purpose of which is to provide for the suppression and punishment of sedition, that is criticism of the king and the Swaziland government’.
Other laws are about content of newspapers and broadcasting stations. Criminal defamation remains part of Swaziland’s laws dating back to the Cape Libel Act, 1882 which made it an offence to publish a defamatory libel: that is to injure the reputation of a person and expose him or her to hatred, ridicule and contempt.
Swaziland offers specific protection for the person of the Ndlovukati (Queen Mother). The Protection of the Person of the Ndlovukati Act, 1968 makes it an offence to bring into hatred or contempt, or incite disaffection or ill will or hostility against, the person of Ndlovukati.
Swaziland has no freedom of information legislation. The Official Secrets Act and other restrictive practices restrict the media in their efforts to obtain information and report freely on the activities of government. Access to information from the government and officials depends on goodwill and contacts rather than on any clearly established rules.
The Obscene Publications Act, 1927 prohibits the importation, making, manufacture, production, sale, distribution, or public exposure of indecent or obscene material. No exemption is granted to material of an artistic, literary or scientific nature. The Act does not define what it means by the terms ‘indecent’ and ‘obscene’.
Legislation also restricts reporting of law courts. The Magistrate’s Courts Act, 1939 grants magistrates the power to hold trials in camera or to exclude females, minors and the public generally ‘in the interest of good order or public morals’.
The Proscribed Publications Act, 1968 is a particularly notorious piece of legislation impacting on the print media sector. It empowers the Minister for Public Service and Information to ban publications, ‘if the publication is prejudicial or potentially prejudicial to the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health’. Two newly-established publications, the Guardian and the Nation, both with agendas critical of the government, were closed under this Act in 2001, although the Nation appealed the ban in the High Court and won its case and continues to publish, but the Guardian closed.
The Cinematograph Act, 1920 controls the making and public dissemination of films, and of pictures and placards relating to the films. The Act also prohibits films to be made of certain Swazi cultural occasions and celebrations namely the Incwala Day, the King’s Birthday, the Umhlanga (Reed Dance) and the Somhlolo (Independence Day) without the Minister’s written consent. The Minister has an unlimited discretion to grant or to refuse consent.
The Swaziland Television Authority Act, 1983 and the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Act, 1983 regulated television and resulted in a near-monopoly of state-controlled television and radio in Swaziland. The Board of the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunication Corporation has sole authority to issue broadcasting licences, which it hardly ever does. Consequently, there is only one commercial radio station (a Christian station that does not report news or current events) and no community stations.
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