‘Cops are back in my home. They are carrying guns. I managed to flee. Now in hiding.”
I woke up to this message from Eugene Dube, a Swati journalist, on Monday May 4.
Twenty-four hours later, Dube would be in South Africa, having found a shallow stretch of river to cross the Eswatini border.
Dube is not the only Swati journalist to run into problems with the authorities as a result of their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Zweli Martin Dlamini, the editor of the online publication Swaziland News, has also fled to South Africa after being arrested and allegedly tortured by the police.
Dressed in dark green to blend into the bush and evade soldiers’ eyes, with shoes and socks in his backpack, Dube stepped into the flowing river and quietly waded toward safety and away from a police force that had been harassing him for doing his job.
A few weeks earlier, Swati Newsweek, the online newspaper that Dube edits, published two articles that caught the attention of the authorities. The first, an opinion piece by Mfomfo Nkambule, criticised King Mswati III and his government for their handling of the Covid-19 emergency. Nkambule’s article, “King reckless on Swazis’ health”, calls on the government to do more coronavirus testing and to ensure hospitals are safe for patients.
The second was an interview by Mthobisi Ntjangase with Ncamiso Ngcamphalala, president of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFFs’) new branch in Eswatini. Ngcamphalala was quoted calling for democracy and for the monarchy to “know its place”. Criticism of the ruling royals is not permitted, so it’s little wonder an article with the headline, “Removing King Possible”, brought some heat on Dube.
I’ve known Dube since January 2013, when he was a reporter at the Swazi Observer, a daily newspaper owned by the king. I was then working in Eswatini at the Media Institute of Southern Africa, an organisation that promotes free speech and independent journalism. Dube had been attacked by an angry mob when covering a local chieftaincy dispute. A few days later, I visited him to see if he was okay and to document the violation of media freedom, not to mention an assault. He had cuts and bruises all over him.
Jump to early 2020 and Dube gets in touch out of the blue. He asked if I can build him a website for Swati Newsweek, the newspaper he founded in 2017. Soon after the website was built, he began publishing his stories online and, on April 23, a group of police officials paid a visit to Dube’s home. In a rowdy scene, the cops detain him and confiscate his laptop, cellphones and notepads. They take him to the police station in Nhlangano, southern Eswatini, where, Dube says, interrogators tried to get him to confess to the crime of sedition. The cops kept mentioning two articles on Dube’s new website, “King reckless on Swazis’ health” and “Removing King Possible”. He was told he could go home only after he’d written a statement explaining why he’d published the two articles. Not to be forced into a confession of sedition, Dube instead wrote a statement outlining his role as an editor who published the stories in the public interest.
The police then took Dube to the local court house, where he explained his predicament to a judicial officer. This officer advised Dube to get a lawyer. No charges were laid and the police, seven hours after they’d taken him from his home, dropped him back with his family. The police kept his laptop, three cellphones and notepads. According to Dube, the cops left him with the parting words that, when they returned they’d leave him “bleeding”.
I asked Eswatini’s police spokesperson, Phindile Vilakati, about Dube’s allegations. She said: “I still maintain that Dube was never detained. If he alleges any malpractices by police during the questioning, he has a right to report.”
Vilakati confirmed there is an arrest warrant for Dube but added “we cannot divulge the offence pending the investigation”.
She added: “The investigations are not targeting him as a journalist but focusing on an act that is unlawful … Eugene Dube is indeed wanted by police to assist in an ongoing investigation and it is true his place was visited by police in execution of a search warrant and some items were seized pending investigation.”
In words that will ring familiar to journalists in other dictatorial states, Vilakati said the country does allow for freedom of expression and opinion as long as it’s used responsibly and respectfully. But, if a journalist has to flee across a river into another country then your country probably doesn’t have freedom of expression.
Echoing the police line, government spokesperson Sabelo Dlamini told me that Dube “is not being targeted as a journalist but as any citizen who can help police in their investigations”. He wouldn’t tell me what the investigation was related to.
Dube says he fled on the morning of May 5 because he’d heard from sources that a charge of sedition was being prepared against him. It’s unclear if this is the case. He’s also heard there might be a separate charge for supposedly spreading misinformation on Covid-19, in relation to Swati Newsweek’s reporting on the pandemic. If charges are waiting for him, Dube says they are “cooked up”. The police spokesperson told me there’s no charge against him because their investigation is ongoing.
It’s also possible that police want Dube so he can form part of the state’s case against EFF-Eswatini president Ncamiso Ngcamphalala, who is now behind bars, held on a charge of sedition for the comments he made in the Swati Newsweek article. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to 20 years. Dube suspects the authorities might want to turn him into a state witness against Ngcamphalala. And if Dube refuses to do so then he can be charged with sedition. He fled because, as a journalist, he said he can’t risk being put in a situation where the police are pressuring him to become a state witness against someone who is quoted in his publication.
When he was crossing the border, knee-deep in water, he thought about how his journalism career had brought him to this. His family was on his mind. He also vowed to keep writing and publishing on his Swati Newsweek site.
“I wish to see a democratic Swaziland before I sleep forever,” he says. “I love my country.”
Zweli Martin Dlamini, the other editor who fled to South Africa, was told by police he was being investigated for suspected sedition, and was questioned about two articles he published in the Swaziland News, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
He said that at one point he was handcuffed to a bench and suffocated with a plastic bag.
The articles in question involved suggestions that King Mswati was in ill-health. The arrest warrant, seen by the CPJ, says Dlamini is wanted in connection with allegedly violating emergency regulations that prevent the spread of false news about Covid-19.
Dlamini’s lawyers have filed a complaint with Eswatini’s Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration. In it, the police are accused of “torture and humiliation”.
Dlamini and Dube fled Eswatini because they do not trust their country’s police force and justice system.
Bill Snaddon is a freelance journalist and filmmaker. He lived in Swaziland from 2012 to 2015, when working at the Media Institute of Southern Africa