Tuesday, May 8, 2018


A watchdog is monitoring media coverage of the upcoming election in Swaziland to promote ‘equitable and ethical journalism’.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) intends to publish quarterly reports for editors and journalists throughout 2018. The national election is due this year at a date yet to be announced by King Mswati III, the absolute monarch in Swaziland.

The elections are undemocratic, political parties are not allowed to take part and the King chooses the Prime Minister and government minsters. 

MISA has already shared guidelines that it said, ‘address the concerns raised by the [past] election observers about the failures of the media to ensure free, fair and transparent elections’.

It is not clear how MISA expects the media to ‘ensure free, fair and transparent elections’. It is true that in a democracy it is generally recognised that at election time the news media play an important role in informing the public about the intended policies of the political parties. They offer space for the policies to be discussed and thereby allow the electorate to make rational decisions on who to vote for. 

A range of events are organised by the media and / or the political parties to facilitate this. Typically, political parties hold media conferences to announce and discuss major policies they would pursue if elected. A number of other events, including rallies, speeches, visits to shopping malls, workplaces and ad hoc ‘photo opportunities’ take place. Newspapers and broadcasting organisation interrogate political party leaders and in some countries debates among party leaders are broadcast. 

These activities are typical in democracies at election time. But, Swaziland is not a democracy and none of the above applies to the kingdom.

Very little of what would be recognised in a democracy as ‘election campaigning’ takes place in Swaziland. Political parties are banned and in the tinkhundla / monarchical democracy that exists in Swaziland candidates are expected, if elected, to represent only the interest of their local constituents. The consequence of this is that there is no debate about which social, political or economic policies a new government should pursue. The people in Swaziland are not appointing a government: that is the prerogative of King Mswati.

After the last election in 2013, Swazi Media Commentary issued its own report on media coverage. It found that generally, political discussion in Swaziland was severely restricted (it still is) and in the months running up to the election police and state security forces broke up a number of meetings designed to discuss the lack of democracy in the kingdom and to garner support for a boycott of the election. 

Consequently, the media in Swaziland only reported the process of the election. In the 2013 election, typically, this meant they covered the registration of voters, the nomination process, and the numbers of people turning out at the primary and secondary elections. 

Campaigning by candidates is outlawed until the results of the primary elections are announced. Although there was evidence that this law was not consistently enforced it meant that election campaigning ‘proper’ only took place between 24 August and 19 September 2013. 

Broadcast media severely restricted coverage of the election and a directive from the state-controlled Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services (SBIS) restricted access to the airwaves by candidates who had to be approved by the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) before they were allowed on air. 

There are only two daily newspaper groups in Swaziland and they gave extensive coverage to the election in terms of space, but it was limited in scope. By far the most important aspect of the election for the newspapers was to demonstrate to readers the election’s legitimacy. After previous elections, official election observers reported on deficiencies in the Swazi political system. Prominent on the list of concerns were the banning of political parties, the lack of power the parliament has and the autocracy of the Swazi monarchy. 

The newspaper and broadcasting houses in Swaziland support the status-quo and it was an imperative for them to continually show support for the political system of tinkhundla / monarchical democracy.

There was no subtlety in this. To the newspapers it was the duty of the people to support the election process because it was the King’s will. On the eve of the secondary election, an editorial in the King’s own newspaper the Swazi Observer (19 September 2013) put it this way: 

‘It is the measure of the faith of the Swazi people on their system, and on their right to choose their candidate and usher them straight to parliament. This remains the eighth wonder of the world!

‘…. As His Majesty has said countless times, we need to vote for the right people tomorrow. The right people, he has advised, are the selfless individuals who can transform the fortunes of this country by bringing change.

Earlier in the election process the Times of Swaziland reported (13 June 2013) Chief Maloyi of Ensingweni told his subjects it was compulsory for them to vote in the elections. 

‘He said participating in the upcoming national elections was compulsory for them because it was the King’s order that the country should go to elections this year.

‘He said he had heard that some people thought that registering and participating in the elections was by choice.

‘“I have been told that some of you thought that participating in the upcoming national elections is for those who like it. That is not true; it is for every Swazi citizen. The only people who have a choice of participating are foreigners, not you,” he said.’ 

Newspapers confused readers about the nature of the elections: constantly claiming that they were to elect a ‘government’, when they were not. The media extolled the virtue of tinkhundla / monarchical democracy emphasising that this ‘unique democracy’ placed the individual non-party candidate at the centre of the political process,  but at the same time asserted that in some never-defined way that these individuals would also work collectively once elected to parliament and form a government. In fact, King Mswati appoints government ministers and he is not obliged to choose from among the elected members of parliament when doing so.

The media did at times criticise the efficiency of the election process. Mostly, this was the shortcomings of the EBC which ran the election. 

The criticisms were always framed in terms of the EBC commissioners letting down the King by their inefficiencies. No mention was made of the fact that the King appointed the EBC and Chief Gija Dlamini, one his half-brothers, chairs the commission, even though, in terms of the requirements of the Swaziland Constitution, he does not have the credentials to do so

But, by the day of the secondary election both newspaper groups uncritically reported the EBC’s assertion that all would be well on the day of the secondary elections. 

Newspaper coverage of the campaign itself was sparse. Almost certainly a lack of resources prevented journalists from travelling to all 55 constituencies across the kingdom. However, in the coverage they did, they showed bias towards favoured candidates. This meant that they would extol virtues of their favourites, but make no mention of the other candidates standing against them. 

A typical case was Lutfo Dlamini, the outgoing Minister of Labour and Social Security, who had also held other posts in government, and was known to be a close personal friend of the Queen Mother Ntombi. He received fawning coverage in the newspapers and many constituents were quoted in his support. However, in Swaziland, the support of the newspapers is not enough: Dlamini lost at the secondary election.
Observers, even from within the local media industry, have for many years reported that journalists in Swaziland have low capacity and this was notable during the election coverage. Even outside of the election period, media in Swaziland are partisan, inaccurate and generally unprofessional and they are turning into an irrelevant vehicle for public discussion. Journalists lack credibility. Content in the Swazi newspaper is compromised by a lack of professionalism in writing and editing. Interesting news stories are watered down by the incomprehensible way they are written, leaving the reader confused and bewildered.  

Comment articles expose readers to un-researched opinion pieces that have compromised journalistic standards and some journalists willingly work as propagandists, especially at the SBIS radio. 

All the above was in evidence in the election coverage. Journalists sensationalised news and often reported as facts, pure conjecture. The day after the election, the Weekend Observer (20 September 2013), for example, reported, ‘about 400,000 voters braved the scorching sun and went straight to the voting centres to cast their ballots as early as possible’. 

This was clearly untrue: the total number of people registered to vote in Swaziland at the election was 411,084. If 400,000 had voted, the turnout would have been about 97 percent, an extraordinary figure for an election and even more so when it is known that at the previous election in 2008, the turnout was only 54 percent. 

In fact, the real story about the election turnout was that the EBC did not release the figure.

The newspapers made the same mistake after the primary election, reporting it as a ‘success’, with ‘overwhelming’ turnouts. (Swazi Observer, 26 August 2013; Times of Swaziland, 29 August 2013). 

But, no complete statistics for voter turnout at the primaries was available to the media when these stories were written (and are still not publicly available), so the reporting had to be based on a mixture of speculation and wishful-thinking.

After the secondary election, newspapers were unanimous that the people had voted ‘for change’. This was based on information that six of eight government ministers standing in the election were defeated and of the 55 members of the House standing for re-election, 43 lost.

Newspapers reported the election result as if it were a vote of no-confidence against the out-going government. (Swazi Observer, 23 September 2013; Times of Swaziland, 23 September 2013).  But, they provided no evidence for this. The media in Swaziland want it both ways. On the one hand they say that under Swaziland’s tinkhundla / monarchical democracy system of government the people elect MPs as individuals who support their constituencies and on the other they say the people have elected a group of MPs who they believe collectively will bring them change. 

In fact, we cannot know what the people want, because there is nowhere in Swaziland for them to freely debate the strengths and weaknesses of the present system of governance and discuss possible alternatives. Certainly, the media do not provide that space. 

No media outlet in the kingdom suggested that if people had voted for change it might be a change in the political system and a move to democracy that they seek. The media would better serve the people of Swaziland if they led this debate.

Richard Rooney
The full report on the 2013 election coverage is available here

See also

Swaziland Media Need Code of Conduct for Covering Elections

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