Tuesday, March 5, 2013


We should not get too excited by news that the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill (2013) contains a provision for community radio stations to operate – it is not going to happen. 
The Bill sets out some general guidelines for how the stations might operate. It states that a community broadcasting service shall serve a community, and the members of that community that such community broadcasting service is intended to serve shall be given an opportunity to run the service. The programming provided by a community broadcasting service shall reflect the needs of the people in the community, which shall include culture, language and demographic needs.

The broadcaster shall provide distinct broadcasting service dealing specifically with issues which are not predominantly dealt with by the public broadcasting service covering the same area. The station shall serve to eradicate information poverty through participatory communication in the community as well as being informative, educational and entertaining. 

And that is why they will never get off the ground. The community radio stations would allow voices at present unheard in Swaziland to take to the airwaves, and that is something King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, does not want to happen.

Nearly all broadcasting in Swaziland is state controlled and the news and information that is given out by them is heavily censored. The only non-state controlled broadcasting – one radio station and one TV channel – censor themselves sufficiently that they are indistinguishable from the state controlled ones.

At present there are no community radio stations in Swaziland. Any attempts to set up community radio in Swaziland have been stalled by a government that says it is in support of such initiatives, but which fails to come up with the licences to let it happen.
If community radio stations were to launch and truly served the interests of their community they would challenge the present news media that is dominated by the needs of political, social and business elites in the kingdom.

The Bill might raise the optimism levels of people advocating for freedom of speech in Swaziland, but that optimism would be misplaced.

There has been little evidence since the Swazi Constitution was enacted in February 2006 that the kingdom is moving toward democracy. The news media are still unable to publish material critical of the monarchy and government ministers have sought to restrict the media’s access to information.

There is no such thing as a free press in Swaziland. There are at least 30 pieces of legislation that restricts the activities of the media in some way or another. Newspapers must be licensed by the government and any number of informal rules of conduct governs what can be talked about in the media and other public spaces.

There is no reason why the ruling elite in Swaziland would want to relax these laws and rules to allow more voices to be heard. The reason why they presently restrict the media is to control the flow of information and discussion. In this way members of the elite groups maintain their privileged positions.

A ‘community’ radio station should be a non-profit service that is owned and managed by the particular community the radio station serves. They are also different from the present commercial or state-controlled media in Swaziland because they allow a diversity of voices and opinions to be heard. This is because they are open to participation from all parts of the community.

Community radio can provide a platform for the discussion about matters that the community itself consider important. These issues might not be the same things that the monarch, the chiefs, or business houses think are important. And, because community radio allows dissenting voices to be heard people who presently have control in Swaziland will see it as dangerous.

The Bill is also unlikely to be enacted because the chiefs will not allow it.  In Swaziland the non-democratic nature of the kingdom requires people to defer to the wishes of local chiefs (who are in effect representatives of the monarch). If the chiefs do not support the community radio project, it will not happen. It really is as simple as that.

We have yet to see what position the chiefs take on the Bill but it is difficult to see that they would allow potentially subversive media into their areas. Instead, if they allowed the community radio into their chiefdoms at all they would want to have control over them. This would make it impossible to have truly ‘community’ radio. However, the idea of a ‘local’ radio, along the lines of the present national state-controlled SBIS that prominently reported the chiefs’ comings and goings (as the national radio does with the king) would probably be very attractive to them.

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