Swaziland stung by Mbeki's press freedom criticism

Swaziland’s Information Minister Abednego Ntshangase says his government was stung by recent criticism from South African President Thabo Mbeki and others about the Swazi government’s censoring of the state media.

Ntshangase was in the news last week when he told parliament that state-owned media houses, including the national TV and radio stations, would not be allowed to report news stories considered controversial or embarrassing to government.

Of his comments in parliament, the minister said: “I never said I was muzzling the press. I will never muzzle the press.”

“We in government had to propose a media policy because you in the journalism community did nothing. We waited and waited for you to act,” Ntshangase told media representatives in Swaziland.

On Thursday, Swaziland’s journalists took a major step towards self-regulation, possibly forestalling government action that would infringe on press freedom.

A charter for a Media Complaints Commission was presented to media stakeholders, who would formalise the document in three weeks.

Ntshangase was appointed information minister this month and is viewed as a hard-liner by journalists who remember his habit of censoring reporters’ questions at royal press conferences with King Mswati III.

Journalists who attended the parliamentary session said they could obtain the parliamentary record to confirm his statement as they had reported it.

Media officials from the independent and state media houses, on hand to get a first look at the Media Complaint Commission constitution, said the body would pre-empt the need for government’s proposed Media Council Bill.

The bill was described by the Times of Swaziland as a “vindictive and punitive measure”. It calls for the licensing of journalists, and allows government to revoke these as it sees fit. Licence fees would pay for a government-appointed media council.

Any media practitioner would in effect stand trial before the council when complaints were registered. If found in violation of a government-written media code, the media worker would face a prison sentence of up to five years, and fines that the Times said would be the equivalent of a reporter’s annual net salary.

However, in reaction to criticism about its news management of the state media, government now seems willing to allow media workers themselves to attempt self-regulation.

“No one questions that the Swazi media has a credibility problem,” said a state radio worker. Two weeks ago, a reporter from the station was discovered filing “on the spot” news stories supposedly from Baghdad, which he actually called in from his home after compiling wire service reports.

“The question is what do we do, and how do we get everyone aboard?” said Jabu Matsebula, spokesperson for the Swaziland Editors’ Forum.

With financial assistance from the UN Development Programme and the British government, media practitioners drew up the plan, unveiled on Thursday, that would allow media consumers to register complaints about inaccurate news stories with a media mediator.

If the mediator’s investigation finds an error, he may ask for a retraction and an apology to be published or broadcast. More serious cases would be referred to a panel of inquiry.

There were “some issues that need to be resolved by stakeholders before the commission’s constitution is ratified next month, such as—how do we get publishers and all media practitioners to participate voluntarily? Should there be registration of journalists? Who could be de-registered if there is a serious breech of ethics?” Matsebula commented.

Media workers agreed that not only government should be convinced that the council is effective, but the public as well. They felt some form of sanctions should be imposed on violators of a companion document, Swaziland’s first media code of ethics, which was also presented on Thursday.

The media workers also agreed that a complaints commission, like a free press, can only exist within a nation whose constitution recognises free expression. King Mswati had promised a new constitution with a Bill of Rights for seven years, but not delivered one.

“In 2000, we had a trial of an editor who angered the king by writing ‘bad things’ about one of the king’s fiancées. Government’s Media Council Bill is a way to punish journalists, and there is that desire by the authorities to stifle criticism and crack the whip. That is why editors are always being called to the palace to explain stories that displease the leadership,” said one editor.

He worried that even if an institution existed to identify and correct erroneous reports, the traditional authorities would still use their powers to lock up journalists.

However, the information minister said that he “would definitely use the Media Complaints Commission if I had a problem” with a story. - Irin

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