The news department at the Swaziland Broadcast and Information Service (SBIS) was “not about to be the only news organisation in the world without a man in Iraq covering the fighting”, according to a source at the government-owned radio station.
But with a budget that can scarcely accommodate staff salaries and recording tape, there seemed no way of sending a Swazi correspondent to a war zone embedded with journalists from all over the world. So, radio history was mined, and a page was taken from Orson Welles’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which had convinced Americans that Manhattan was under attack by Martians.
A scheme was concocted to place a “correspondent”, announcer Phesheya Dube, right in the heart of Iraq, without any expense, inconvenience or possible danger. In fact, he would not even have to leave the mountaintop capital of Mbabane.
Beginning last week on the Breakfast Show, Dube phoned in his “coverage” to presenter Moses Matsebula. “The presenter made it sound like he was calling from the battle zone. Phesheya took all his information from newspaper articles in the foreign press and wire services the SBIS subscribes to,” a journalist who was in on the ruse said.
In fact, the local media were well aware that Dube had never left Swaziland. Dube himself seemed blithely unconcerned about exposure. He went to Parliament, where MPs who had listened to his report that morning greeted him with surprise and begged him not to return to the fighting.
On the air, Matsebula showed concern over Dube’s welfare. “You take care,” Matsebula advised him. “You must find a cave where you can be safe from the missiles.”
Matsebula did not suggest where Dube might find a cave in downtown Baghdad, or amid the flat desert expanses of Southern Iraq, over whose vast distances Swazi listeners heard Dube skip with remarkable ease.
While media insiders chortled, politicians caught wind of the ruse and MPs ended the charade.
“Why are they lying to the nation that the man is in Iraq, when he is here in Swaziland, broadcasting out of a broom closet?” MP Jojo Dlamini demanded of Information Minister Mntomzima Dlamini at a House of Assembly session.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Dube blamed Matsebula for suggesting he was in Iraq. “I was phoning the reports from my house. I’d monitor the newspapers and TV, and file at two or three in the morning. I had no idea the presenter was telling people I was up there. I think he did it to increase listener interest.”
SBIS referred comment to the information minister and Dlamini promised MPs an investigation, but he was shifted to the Education Ministry in a Cabinet shake-up in the first week of April.
King Mswati III’s government retains a monopoly on the media. MPs complain that the news is censored to keep government critics off the air. Successive information ministers have denied this, but Swazi radio listeners and viewers of government-owned Swazi TV are used to stunts perpetrated in the name of news.
Phesheya — the siSwati name his parents prophetically gave him translates as “he who is overseas” — received international exposure when word of his stunt was broadcast over the Fox News network in the United States and worldwide over the same wire services he used to provide the content of his “on-the-spot” war coverage.