The Government in Swaziland has been monitoring private online communications for some years without legal authority, a new report discloses.
These include internet blogs, email and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and internet chatrooms.
Telephone conversations have also been monitored.
This is reported by the United States in a review of human rights in Swaziland, just published.
The revelations add weight to anecdotal evidence circulating in the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. Political parties are barred from taking part in elections and prodemocracy groups are banned under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
The report from the US State Department looked at events in 2017. It stated, ‘There were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.’
It referred to a document called the Private and Cabinet First Quarter Report of 2015, in which, ‘the government press office stated that authorities monitored internet blogs, email, and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and internet chat rooms’.
The US report added, ‘Members of civil society and prodemocracy groups reported the government monitored email, Facebook, and internet chat rooms, and police monitored certain individuals’ telephones.
‘Individuals who criticized the monarchy risked exclusion from the patronage system of the traditional regiments (chiefdom-based groupings of men dedicated to serving the King) that distributed scholarships, land, and other benefits. Both undercover and uniformed police appeared at labor union, civil society, arts, and business functions.’
The report stated that in Swaziland, ‘The law severely restricts free speech and gives police wide discretion to detain persons for lengthy terms without trial or public hearing. Those convicted of sedition may be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
‘The King may suspend the constitutional right to free expression at his discretion, and the government severely restricted freedom of expression, especially regarding political issues or the royal family.’
It added, ‘Most journalists practiced self-censorship. Journalists expressed fear of judicial reprisals for their reporting on some High Court cases and matters involving the monarchy. Daily newspapers criticized government corruption and inefficiency but generally avoided criticizing the royal family.’
Radio and television stations, it stated, ‘practiced self-censorship and refused to broadcast anything perceived as critical of the government or the monarchy’.
In March 2018, Swaziland’s Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini hinted the government might try to restrict access to social media.
He told Senators there was nothing police could do ‘at the moment’ about posts on sites such as Facebook. The Swazi Observer reported (28 March 2018), ‘The premier told the senators that all countries in the world were concerned on whether social media was good for development or not.’
He was speaking during a debate about how video footage showing the murder of businessman Victor Gamedze who was shot dead in a petrol station appeared on social media.
The Swazi Government has a history of hostility to social media. In 2011, Dlamini said it was important to keep information published on Facebook away from the Swazi people. ‘If such stories from these websites then make it to the newspapers and radios, then the public at large will start to think there is some truth in the story yet it was just malicious gossip,’ the Times of Swaziland reported him saying at the time.
He was commenting after information about a cabinet minister had appeared on social media.
In the run up to April 2011 a group used Facebook to try to drum up support for an ‘uprising’ for democracy in the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, who is sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. The Government threatened the online activists with prosecution.
In May 2011, the Times of Swaziland reported Swaziland had specially ‘trained officers’ to track down people who used Facebook to criticise the Swazi Government. Nathaniel Mahluza, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology, said the government was worried by what the newspaper called ‘unsavoury comments’ about the kingdom being published on the internet.
Academic research published in 2013 suggested that people in Swaziland used the Internet to communicate with one another and share information and ideas about the campaign for democracy, bypassing the Swazi mainstream media which was heavily censored. They debated and shared information about activities designed to bring attention to the human rights abuses in the kingdom.
PM HINTS AT SOCIAL MEDIA RESTRICTION
ONE IN THREE USE INTERNET FOR NEWS
SWAZI PEOPLE SPEAK UP FOR THEMSELVES
GOVERNMENT THREATENS FACEBOOK CRITICS
SWAZI POLICE TRACK FACEBOOK USERS
FACEBOOK TELLS TRUTH MEDIA WON’T