Critics of Swaziland King Mswati III or his unelected government face jail for two years under a new law.
The offences are classed as showing ‘contempt against the cultural and traditional heritage of the Swazi nation’ and are contained in the Public Order Act 2017. Contempt includes defacing a picture of King Mswati who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
The Public Order Act allows for a E10,0000 (US$770) fine, two years imprisonment or both for inciting ‘hatred or contempt’ against cultural and traditional heritage. In Swaziland seven out of ten people have incomes less than US$2 a day.
The Act also targets gatherings of 50 or more people in a public place where policy actions or criticisms of any government or organisation are made.
The Times of Swaziland, the only independent daily newspaper in the kingdom where reporting the activities of King Mswati and his family is severely restricted, reported, ‘These gatherings could be those which are convened or held to form pressure groups, to hand over petitions to any person or to mobilise or demonstrate support for or opposition to the views, principles, policy, actions or omissions of any person, organisation including any government administration or institution.
‘The Act states that to avoid any doubt people who also speak ill or incite hatred against the cultural and traditional heritage of the country could be those who are involved in a picket or protest action.
‘Other acts that carry a similar penalty also include a person who trashes, burns or otherwise destroys, defaces or defiles or damages any national insignia or emblem. The nation insignia or other emblem has been defined by the Act as any weaving, embroidery, sewing, drawing, picture, illustration and painting which represents His Majesty, the Indlovukati [King’s mother], national flag or Swaziland Coat of Arms.’
Earlier in 2017, Swaziland came 142nd out of 167 countries in an international survey on democracy called the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index. It labelled Swaziland an ‘authoritarian’ country.
It said ‘In these states [authoritarian], state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary.’
In Swaziland, political parties are not allowed to take part in elections and most of the political groupings in Swaziland that advocate for democracy have been banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2008.
The Swazi people are only allowed to select 55 of the 65 members of the House of Assembly, the other 10 are appointed by the King. None of the 30 members of the Swaziland Senate are elected by the people: the King appoints 20 members and the other 10 are appointed by the House of Assembly.
One of only two national newspapers in Swaziland is in effect owned by the King. The state controls one of only two television stations and all radio, except for a small Christian-orientated channel.
The EIU scored Swaziland 3.3 out of ten on the Democracy Index, lower than Iraq. Swaziland scored 0.92 on electoral process and pluralism and 3.53 on civil liberties.
The report followed one published in December 2016 by Afrobarometer. In that, Swaziland came last out of 36 countries in Africa in a survey on political freedom.
Also in 2016, an analysis on the legal system in Swaziland published by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) concluded all opposition to the rule of the King was treated as ‘terrorism’ and the courts had often been seen to do the King’s bidding.
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