Thursday, February 15, 2018


Swaziland’s Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini has said a newspaper in the kingdom was closed down because it published reports critical of his government.

He told a Cabinet retreat at the Pigg’s peak Hotel, ‘As the government we have seen people who are desperate to criticise us as their public servants at every opportunity. In the past we saw a certain news editor write only on government’s faults.’

The Swazi Observer reported his comments on Tuesday (13 February 2018). It said, ‘Dlamini said the editor in question would write volatile articles published in a certain newspaper every Monday resulting in the newspaper in question eventually being shut down for a period of time.’

The newspaper said, ‘The PM said by writing such scathing articles, the editor caused his newspaper to be shut down and this was unfortunate because a lot of innocent people suffered for one man’s mistakes.’

It added, ‘Although he did not mention names the only newspaper that was closed and later opened was the Swazi Observer. It was closed in 2000 during a time where Dr Dlamini was the PM.’

The PM’s comments come less than two months after the Swaziland Shopping newspaper was forced to close by government. It said it had not registered with Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology. This happened even though the newspaper had been publishing since 2014. It happened after the newspaper published a story about King Mswati III, the absolute monarch in Swaziland, and his business dealings. Editor Zweli Martin Dlamini fled to neighbouring South Africa after he received death threats

The story of the Observer’s closure in 2000 is an example of how media censorship in Swaziland works. The Observer was (and still is) owned by a conglomerate called Tibiyo Taka Ngwane headed by King Mswati but this did not stop it being closed.

It was closed after it published a series of stories critical of Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini the then Prime Minister and Edgar Hillary the Police Commissioner.

Mandla Magagula, wrote in the Nation magazine, an independent comment magazine in Swaziland, in April 2000, ‘The events which led to the sudden closure of the Swazi Observer tell a tale of high drama which could easily have come from a movie script. As the newspaper tried to live up to the principles of good journalism, political figures came down on the editorial team like the wrath of God and when they reached a deadlock closed it down.’

According to Magagula, the main characters in the drama were the Prime Minister, the Commissioner of Police, the managing director of Tibiyo Taka Ngwane A. T. Dlamini; and the Attorney General, Phesheya Dlamini.

The problem for the Observer started when the newspaper’s managing editor and his reporters refused to divulge the sources for stories the Observer had published.

The first was when the newspaper carried a story about the bombings of the Deputy Prime Minister’s office and the Mahlanya Inkhundla, saying that police were poised for a breakthrough arrest. When the story appeared the police commissioner claimed the Observer had interfered with a police investigation.

The second was a report based on a letter written by Edgar Hillary who was seeking the assistance of the South African Special Police Squad in the investigation of a millionaire from Manzini, who was on the run in South Africa.

The International Press Institute (IPI) at the time reported, ‘On the day the article appeared, [the managing editor] was summoned to Hillary’s offices where the journalist was once again reprimanded for the article and asked again to reveal his source.

‘The following day, [the managing editor] was summoned yet again to Hillary’s office for a meeting with Hillary and two other policemen. Speaking to MISA-Swaziland, [the managing editor] said that the second meeting amounted to a mini court session. He was called names such as a “bullying” and “irresponsible” journalist and was warned not to write any “rubbish” that could be published at a later date. He was also asked for the letter and for him to reveal his source, which he declined to do. At the end of the meeting he was warned that he could face criminal charges or face a High Court order because of his actions and his refusal to disclose his source.

‘[The managing editor] along with his news editor were summoned to the offices of the Attorney General, where they were once again pressured to give in to the demands of the police commissioner. The two were again asked to hand over the letter in question.’

The third story was when the Observer called the Prime Minister ‘a liar’ after he said he had left the Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister out of a delegation to open the new embassy of the Republic of China because government had no money. The Observer discovered that China had funded the trip.

The fourth was a story about cow dung that involved the Speaker of the House of Assembly.

The fifth was a story that an influential millionaire had plotted to have the prime Minister sacked.

The Swazi High Court turned down an urgent appeal from the Attorney General to force the newspaper to divulge its sources. Magagula reported that the ‘Attorney General personally went to Observer House [the offices of the Observer] and delivered the documents relating to the application with the dire warning that the newspaper would either divulge its sources or [the managing editor] and his two reporters would be locked up.’

A source told Magagula, ‘The Attorney General was all pomp and majesty until [the managing editor] brought him back to earth with the warning that this brazen harassment could attract unpleasant international repercussions. The AG stormed out of the newspaper offices without another word.’

After the police commissioner, Edgar Hillary had failed to get the newspaper to disclose his sources, A. T. Dlamini, the managing director of Tibiyo intervened on behalf of Hillary.

According to Magagula, the role of A. T. Dlamini ‘is particularly reprehensible because he showed himself to be a double-talker’. He had previously encouraged staff at the Observer to report ‘without fear or favour because he believed in editorial independence. But here he was harassing his top editorial executive.’

When the journalists refused to divulge their sources,
King Mswati III was consulted and, according to Magagula, he was ‘seemingly persuaded that the only way out of the quagmire was to close the newspaper’.

The IPI reported at the time, ‘The board of directors of the entire Swazi Observer group of papers announced on 17 February that the paper was being shut down. Chairman of the Board Timothy Nhleko called in the entire staff and in a one-minute address announced that the paper was being closed immediately and that everyone should vacate the premises.

‘In a written statement, the management said the closure was due to restructuring and financial reorganisation. However, MISA sources said that at a strategic planning meeting sponsored by the board and shareholders in the previous week, a five-year plan had been drawn up for the paper. According to the source, there was no indication of financial difficulties at the paper. Reliable sources in Swaziland claim that the order to close the newspaper came verbally from the King.’

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