Thursday, October 17, 2019

Swaziland police comb social media to track down union activists during legal strike

Striking trade unionists in Swaziland (eSwatini) say police are using social media to track them down before taking them in for questioning.

Schoolteachers have been especially targeted, according to union sources.

This is not the first time police have used surveillance and spying against trade unionists.

It happened after a three-day legal strike by public servants who want a 7.8 percent cost-of-living (CoLA) salary increase. The government which was not elected but appointed by absolute monarch King Mswati III says it is broke and has offered nothing.

Some teachers were summoned to the Manzini police station after they were traced on social media platforms. Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) President Mbongwa Dlamini and Secretary General Sikelela Dlamini accompanied some of them.

The Times of eSwatini reported that police knew details of the teachers, including their nicknames and what subjects they taught. Teachers said they used social media groups to discuss topics including their welfare, the CoLA issue and the strike action.

One teacher told the Times ‘I believe they just pick individuals who post or comment about the strike and CoLA issues.’

The newspaper quoted one teacher saying police said, ‘they were inviting us to the police station for our involvement in the clash between the law enforcers and marchers during the recent civil servants’ public sensitisation march’ on 2 October 2019. 

Meanwhile, the Times also reported that the Ministry of Education and Training had instructed regional educational offices to supply it with details on SNAT leaders in their areas. The information is to include the names of branch leaders and members of the national executive council.

Police in Swaziland have a long history of surveillance and spying. In September 2018 teachers discovered a police spy at their union conference and threw him out. His name and photograph and a picture of the car he was using was published on social media.

A week before the conference police shot and wounded a schoolteacher when they fired into a group of teachers during a protest over pay. 

In July 2018 it was reported that police were video recording and keeping data of protest marches by political parties and labour federations. They then used the information to deprive people of college scholarships, jobs in the army, police, and correctional services or promotions in government departments, the online newspaper Swaziland News reported.

The newspaper said the Police Intelligence Unit had been captured filming a protest march organised by the Trade Congress Union of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) in June 2018.

In September 2017 police in Swaziland disguised themselves as news reporters at a march of public servants in Mbabane. The Sunday Observer in Swaziland at the time called it ‘spying’ and said it had happened before at other public demonstrations, ‘They [police] are always plain clothed and carry traditional journalistic tools including cameras and notebooks,’ the newspaper reported.

The march was legal. A police spokesman said they were not spying because the march took place in a public place.

In August 2017 it was reported that police infiltrated a Pensioners’ Association meeting to make notes on proceedings.

In July 2013 it was reported that police in Swaziland were spying on the kingdom’s members of parliament. One officer disguised in plain clothes was thrown out of a workshop for MPs and one MP reported his phone had been bugged. Ntondozi MP Peter Ngwenya told the House of Assembly at the time that MPs lived in fear because there was constant police presence, in particular from officers in the Intelligence Unit. 

In May 2013 the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported that police spies had infiltrated journalism newsrooms in Swaziland, which had led to a heightened climate of fear. 

It is legal in certain circumstances to tap phones in Swaziland. The Suppression of Terrorism Act gives police the right to listen in on people’s conversations if they have the permission of the Attorney General.

See also

Swaziland police shoot union leader in back as peaceful workers’ protest turns into a ‘battlefield’
Swaziland police fire rubber bullets and teargas injuring 15 during national strike

State Police Spy On Swazi MPs
Police Spies Infiltrate Media

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