Swaziland’s Mswati III cracks the whip on social media

Swaziland is planning a censorship law that will ban Facebook and Twitter users from criticising its autocratic ruler, King Mswati III.

Africa’s last absolute monarch is facing growing protests over his undemocratic regime which has pushed the tiny mountain kingdom to the brink of bankruptcy.

But Mswati’s justice minister, Mgwagwa Gamedze, told the Swazi senate: “We will be tough on those who write bad things about the king on Twitter and Facebook. We want to set an example.”

The government is finalising a law that will make it illegal to insult the king on social networks, Gamedze said.

The move follows comments last week by Swazi senator Thuli Msane over how online activism is spiralling out of control and threatening the king’s reputation.

“It’s like, the moment Swazi people cross the border to neighbouring countries they begin to go on a campaign to disrespect their own country and king,” he said.

“Surely there is something that must be done with them. There must be a law that can take them to task.”

Cracking down on dissent
Although internet penetration is low among Swaziland’s 1.2-million people, networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been used to organise public protests, including a student demonstration on Monday against cutbacks in higher education.

Pius Vilakati, spokesperson of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, condemned the planned crackdown. “The government is desperate right now,” he said. “They are trying anything to stop people talking to each other. It would be difficult for them, because people will always talk and continue to talk.”

Vilakati predicted “chaos” if the law was enforced. “I don’t think Swazis will take it lying down,” he said.

Even so-called independent newspapers in Swaziland were heavily censored by the government, he added. “They say there is free speech in Swaziland. But if people are not allowed to criticise the leadership, there is no free speech.”

Last month, the sacked editor of the Swazi Observer newspaper reportedly fled the country in fear for his life.

Lap of luxury
Educated at Sherborne School, in the UK, Mswati has 13 wives and hosts an annual reed dance, in which he can choose a new bride from tens of thousands of bare-breasted virgins. Opposition parties are outlawed and political activists are routinely detained or assaulted.

The king’s fortune is estimated at about $100-million. There was anger last month when the royal family and military received extra money from the national budget. Swaziland, a former British protectorate, has the highest HIV rate in the world and two-thirds of its people live in poverty.

Mswati has endured unprecedented public protests because of a deepening financial crisis. Last year, thousands of students and activists took to the streets, prompting a forceful response from police. More protests are planned in coming weeks.

Swaziland’s crackdown follows similar measures in Zimbabwe, where a man was arrested last year over an allegedly subversive message he posted on Facebook. He was later cleared of all charges. —

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