The Government in undemocratic Swaziland takes one step forward and two steps back in its attitude to media freedom, a leading pressure group said.
It has held talks with a newly-created media consortium seeking the right to freedom of expression and access to information and at the same time continued to censor broadcasting and blocked freedom of information legislation.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa in its annual report on media freedom in Swaziland just published called the creation of the Swaziland Media Consortium (SMC) a major step forward. SMC has eight member bodies from journalists and media workers and non-government organisations.
In its review of 2017, MISA said SMC had met with Dumisani Ndlangamandla, Minister of Information, Communication and Technology, to discuss legislation around freeing broadcasting and introducing a freedom of information bill.
MISA reported, ‘The Minister also stressed the urgent need to address media development issues, access to information and dropping standards of journalism.’
Drafts of broadcasting legislation has been around since at least 2013 and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Bill since 2007.
In Swaziland political parties are banned from taking part in elections and King Mswati III who rules as an absolute monarch chooses the Prime Minister and government.
He also has a firm grip on broadcasting and most printed media in the kingdom. MISA reported, ‘In the year under review, the management of the state broadcasters perfected state media capture. In between the programmes and news bulletins, public information officers working at the radio channel [SBIS] played SiSwati interludes extoling the benefits of living in a monarchy and featured songs portraying the King as the most benevolent ruler. There is a clear perception that dissenting voices cannot be aired in the state-controlled broadcaster.’
At a party for his 50th birthday on 19 April 2018 King Mswati wore a watch worth US$1.6 million and a suit studded with diamonds. Days earlier he had taken delivery of his second private jet aircraft which with VIP upgrades was reported to have cost US$30 million. He has 13 palaces, fleets of top of the range Mercedes and BMW cars and he and his family take shopping trips abroad that cost millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, seven in ten of the population, estimated at 1.1 million people live in abject poverty on incomes less than the equivalent of US2 per day.
MISA is not the only group to review media freedom in Swaziland over the past year. The latest annual report from Reporters Without Borders said there was no media freedom in Swaziland. It ranked the kingdom 152 out of 180 in the world ranking.
In its report RWB stated the kingdom, ‘prevents journalists from working freely and obstructs access to information. No court is allowed to prosecute or try members of the government, but any criticism of the regime is liable to be the subject of a prosecution.
‘For fear of reprisals, journalists censor themselves almost systematically.’
The US State Department in its review of human rights in Swaziland for 2017 stated that the Swazi Constitution provided for freedom of speech and press, ‘but the King may deny these rights at his discretion, and the government severely restricted these rights in prior years’.
It added, ‘Officials impeded press freedom. Although no law bans criticism of the monarchy, the prime minister and other officials cautioned journalists against publishing such criticism with veiled threats of newspaper closure or job loss.’
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