/ 20 October 2021

Defend journalists and media freedom in Eswatini

Eswatini Press Freedom 1440x960
Pro-democracy protests in eSwatini since (Photograph by Nkosinathi Masuku)

Journalism is under attack in Eswatini. In July this year, New Frame journalists Magnificent Mndebele and Cebelihle Mbuyisa were abducted, detained and tortured by security forces in the country for doing their work as journalists. 

In South Africa, 19 October is Media Freedom Day. On this day in 1977, the racist apartheid regime banned three publications, The World, Weekend World and The Voice. A number of organisations affiliated to the Black Consciousness Movement were also banned, while journalists and activists were arrested and subsequently detained without trial for long periods. Among them was The World’s editor, Percy Qoboza, who spent five months in jail.

It is fitting that on this day we reflect on the abuse of journalists by our neighbour, Eswatini.

The last absolute monarch in Africa has a reputation of suppressing the rights to freedom of expression and of the press with impunity. In 2014, the editor of The Nation, Bheki Makhubu, and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were convicted of contempt of court for having written articles that were critical of the regime and the then chief justice. They were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment but were released after 15 months following mounting international pressure. 

According to a March 2021 submission by the international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, Eswatini ranks among the lowest in the world in terms of countries’ level of media freedom. It points out that no legislative framework exists to give proper effect to the rights to freedom of the press and expression. 

For obvious reasons, it is not in the interest of King Mswati III to allow independent media in the country. The long-standing aversion to basic freedoms is worse in the current moment of open dissent. Because of fear of harassment and suppression, journalists in Eswatini, through self-censorship, avoid “sensitive” issues that involve the monarch, Human Rights Watch says.   

Rising up in Eswatini

Some say revolutions are spontaneous. They occur when unpredictable but necessary political moments like a workers’ strike, the mutiny of an army or police violence allow mass organisation and revolutionaries to take advantage of an emancipatory opportunity.  

In the not-so-distant past, in 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit-and-vegetable seller, triggered the beginning of the Arab Spring. Bouazizi was a victim of state-sponsored violence. The police had humiliated him and confiscated his scales because he did not have a permit to sell from a cart on the streets. When his demand for answers from those in power was ignored, he set himself alight in protest. It was through the media and citizen journalism that images and videos of Bouazizi quickly led to widespread protests, mobilising millions of people to topple a repressive regime.   

In Eswatini, citizens have been involved in protests demanding change since the beginning of May, when the killing of a final-year law student, Thabani Nkomonye, and the uncertain circumstances around his death sparked uprisings across the country. The police are alleged to have been involved in Nkomonye’s killing, and scores of young people in Eswatini took to the streets.

Some might say the uprising was inevitable, given that 70% of the country’s population live in abject poverty. Certainly, in Mndebele and Mbuyisa’s reports on Eswatini – from unlawful and violent evictions to liberal parliamentarians demanding progressive legislation – as well as that of Eswatini progressive media, one can see the signs of a looming revolution.

Whatever the reasons for the uprising, one thing is certain: the people of Eswatini have had enough of an authoritarian regime and are demanding change. 

But unlike during the Arab Spring, the people of Eswatini cannot tweet the revolution live because of routine internet shutdowns and network service cuts. The media cannot report on the events as and when they happen owing to state repression of those who dare to do so.  

The shutdown of network services and the internet has made communication extremely difficult. It has also made mobilising impossible. Activists and human rights activists brought an urgent application in the Eswatini high court on 2 July challenging the internet shutdown; the case was withdrawn. 

The authoritarian state has intensified its assault on the rights to freedom of expression and the press in Eswatini. In South Africa, we must demand answers from the big network corporations that agreed to the shutdown demanded by the powers in our neighbouring state. Communications companies must be exposed for their complicity in crimes against humanity and for denying the people of Eswatini their right to unhindered access to information through the internet.

The value of journalism 

An institution that handles archives will likely include old newspaper articles as part of its collection, because press articles are an important source of information for research and any documentation of history. That is why the old adage that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” remains true even today. 

Freedom of the press and expression enables writers and journalists of different times and persuasions to record the first draft of history. This ability and power of journalists to report the course of history has seen different interests seeking to control and, at times, destroy the media, as we have seen with Mswati. 

In this regard, however, it is important to recall the poignant words of writer, political activist, linguist and journalist Sol Plaatje, who wrote in Mhudi, the first novel written by a Black South African, that “the viewpoint of the ruler is not always the viewpoint of the ruled”.

The dictator of Eswatini cannot suppress the idea of a better future. The people of Eswatini have their own ideas about the trajectory their lives and their future should take. Acts like detaining and torturing journalists and shutting down the internet are not going to detract them from their viewpoint.

The significance of the media in forging a better society and a democratic future cannot be overstated. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Eswatini signed in 1991 and ratified in 1995, affirms that everyone has the right to expression and to disseminate information. 

The Eswatini state is in clear breach of a number of international legal instruments such as those that affirm the media’s right to freedom. Its suppression of the media goes against any acceptable international norms and standards and affects not only media practitioners, but also the public’s right to receive accurate information while events unfold.      

The significance of the media in a democracy was articulated beautifully by former Constitutional Court justice Kate O’Regan in the case of Khumalo and Others v Holomisa. O’Regan wrote that “the print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and media and the right to receive information and ideas … [The media have] an obligation to provide citizens with information and with a platform for the exchange of ideas, which is critical to the development of a democratic culture … [and] a constitutional duty to act with vigour, courage, integrity and responsibility.”

Criminalising legitimate work 

There is no doubt that Mndebele and Mbuyisa, in the face of insistent state violence, have done their jobs with vigour, courage and responsibility. But we must ask ourselves some questions.       

What crimes have journalists in and outside of Eswatini committed? The undemocratic regime must tell us what Mndebele and Mbuyisa are guilty of? Certainly, journalism is not a crime. The kingdom wants to hide its crimes by suppressing the images and stories of dead bodies, burnt beyond recognition, of men and women without limbs because of state violence, of displacement and orphaned children.

It must be said that Mswati acts with such impunity because these are Africans, impoverished Africans, and as Frantz Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “… they die there, it matters not where, nor how”. They are disposable. 

In Eswatini, the attempt by New Frame journalists to humanise the victims of violence and put a face to the statistics is treated as a crime. Calling the dead by their names and speaking to the families that have lost their loved ones at the hands of the state is a crime. Questioning the accuracy of the statistics of those killed and injured by the army and police is a crime. 

This harassment and abuse of the media must come to an end. Mswati must be charged for crimes against humanity, and if the courts in Eswatini cannot prosecute him, the African Court of Human Rights must be petitioned. And if this fails, and the only way to vindicate the rights of emaSwati who have been at the receiving end of Mswati’s violence is approaching the International Criminal Court, then it should be done.  

It is vital that we stand with the people of Eswatini and defend those exposing the atrocities. We must condemn in the strongest terms the abuse of journalists and the media in the country because they are the eyes and ears of the public both in Eswatini and beyond.  

This article was first published on New Frame