The Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted the secrecy about King Mswati’s health, as the Swazi traditional elite continues to struggle with the concepts of information rights and media freedom.
Various world leaders have publicly disclosed their coronavirus-positive status. emaSwati, by contrast, were left in the dark when their king dropped out of the public eye after the outbreak of the disease.
The king’s chief officer, Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze, Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini, Health Minister Lizzie Nkosi and the governor of the Ludzidzini Royal Residence, Lusendvo Fakudze, offered no explanation for Mswati’s prolonged absence. This has fuelled the rumour mill.
Speculation was rife that the 52-year-old monarch was battling his alleged infection in Manzana Royal Hospital, which is reserved for the royal family’s use. This was further fuelled by Mswati’s failure to appear at a media conference scheduled for April 12 that was switched from the Ludzidzini Royal Residence to Lozitha Palace, only to be cancelled late at night, as well as the cancellation of the festivities associated with the king’s birthday on April 19.
eSwatini’s emerging online newspapers and citizen journalists alleged that a coronavirus infection was keeping the king away from public life, but the mainstream media shied away from the story.
Two online newspapers, Swaziland News and Swati Newsweek, incensed authorities by reporting Mswati’s alleged illness, violating the customary restriction on commoners prying into the state of the king’s health.
Swaziland News editor Zweli Martin Dlamini wrote that it was alleged that Mswati had contracted Covid-19 and that his condition was so serious that he had to be admitted to hospital. He also wrote that the king had jetted out of the kingdom at night to receive better medical attention abroad. Dlamini’s attempts to confirm the rumours with Fakudze were in vain, so he used anonymous “senior royal sources” to lend weight to his reports.
Not to be outdone, Swati Newsweek columnist Mfomfo Nkambule and editor Eugene Dube also criticised Mswati and his tinkhundla government with headlines such as “King reckless on Swazis’ health” and “Removing King possible”, which stirred up a hornets’ nest in traditional circles.
Responsible for muzzling the media and dissidents for close to 50 years, the Royal eSwatini Police Service sprang into action. Acting on the instructions of national police commissioner William Tsintsibala Dlamini, they issued a notice appealing to anyone who knew the whereabouts of Swaziland News editor Dlamini to assist them.
Because he had apparently fled to South Africa, they reportedly turned their attention to Nompendulo Nokuthula Dlamini, his wife. In court papers, she claimed the police handcuffed and suffocated her by putting a plastic bag over her head.
This is the second time Dlamini has allegedly skipped across the border after antagonising the Swazi authorities. In mid-December 2018, he got a tip-off that the police wanted to arrest him because of his investigative stories into deals involving Victor Gamedze, a businessman with connections to the royal family.
Swati Newsweek editor Dube also reportedly skipped the border after the labadzala (elders) set the police on him. He alleged that the police had detained him and confiscated his laptop, cellphones and notepads. The police denied this, saying that they only took him in for questioning.
Dube’s escape allegedly followed a tip-off he received warning him that he was to be charged with sedition and spreading misinformation about Covid-19. Under the colonial-era Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (amended in 1983), sedition carries a penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.
In a statement, government spokesperson Sabelo Dlamini dismissed media reports, saying: “His majesty is well and in good health. Such fabrication perpetuated by elements intent on sowing confusion and panic is unacceptable and appalling.”
Dlamini had the full weight of the law behind him. Article 29, sub-section 1 (c) and (d) of eSwatini’s coronavirus regulations, issued earlier this year, provides that “a person … institution or organisation shall not publish any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about Covid-19 and use print or electronic media on the Covid-19 infection status of any person”.
Any person or organisation that contravenes the regulations is liable to a fine of up to E20 000 (about R20 000) or imprisonment for up to five years. The regulations also stipulate that no one may use the print or electronic media to publish information about Covid-19 without the health ministry’s permission, in what amounts to censorship on a major public health issue.
Mswati returned briefly to public life on May 7 at a press conference at Ludzidzini, where he commanded emaSwati to adhere to Covid-19 preventative measures.
Whether he had contracted Covid has not been answered.
The media has had numerous run-ins with the powers that be for daring to probe the issue of the king’s physical wellbeing and for breaking the unspoken commandment: thou shalt not report anything unflattering or critical about him.
In 2000, the proprietors of the Swazi Observer, the king’s personal investment arm, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, temporarily closed down the newspaper because its editors refused to disclose its sources for stories relating to police corruption.
In 2001, the police arrested Thulani Mthethwa, editor of the now defunct The Guardian newspaper, and interrogated him at the Mbabane police headquarters about stories he had published concerning the king’s health and rumours that his first wife, Inkhosikati laMbikiza, had tried to poison him. The publication had earlier published a photo of the queen crying at Matsapha International Airport as she prepared to board a plane for London. It alleged that the king had expelled her from the royal palace.
That same year, the then minister of public service and information, Magwagwa Mdluli, invoked the Proscribed Publications Act of 1968 to ban both The Guardian and The Nation — on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. The law gives the minister the power to ban or suspend publications that do not conform to “Swazi morality and ideals”.
The Nation settled the matter out of court, but The Guardian, founded by sacked journalists from the state-owned Swazi Observer, shut down after its protracted legal challenge to the banning dragged on unresolved in the court of appeal.
In 2012, the Observer’s editor-in-chief, Musa Ndlangamandl, fled to South Africa after learning that the police wanted to arrest him on charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008. He had been fired earlier in the year after publishing interviews with leaders of banned pro-democracy groups in his daily column.
Back in 1999, the Times of Swaziland’s Sunday editor, Bheki Makhubu, was arrested for publishing an article describing the king’s fiancée, Senteni Masango, as a “high school dropout” and attributing her expulsion from school to poor discipline. Under royal pressure, the Times’ management allegedly sacked Makhubu for turning the newspaper into “a weekly political newsletter”, and the police detained and charged him with high treason, later changing the charge to one of criminal defamation. Minister Mdluli also hired a lawyer to draft a Character Assassination Bill and redraft the Media Council Bill because of “Makhubu’s conduct of irresponsible reporting”.
In 2014, Makhubu, now the editor of The Nation magazine, and columnist Thulani Maseko spent 15 months in jail after daring to criticise the conduct of then Swaziland chief justice Michael Ramodipedi, who enjoyed the king’s favour.
Also exerting a chilling effect on media freedom was the Court of Appeal’s award of R500 000 in damages to the Senate president, Chief Gelane Zwane, who claimed to have been defamed by the Times of Swaziland. The paper had published a story that questioned the chief’s paternity. The sizable award was seen as reflecting the court’s subservient attitude to the traditional authorities.
eSwatini formally endorses the values of freedom of information and media freedom. Section 24 of its 2005 Constitution states that “a person has a right to freedom of expression and opinion” and “shall not, except with free consent of that person, be hindered in the enjoyment of the freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press and other media”.
This analysis was produced by the Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism in Swaziland, in association with IJ Hub