Swaziland’s controversial Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi has intensified his crackdown on the media by threatening the managing editor of a major daily newspaper with immediate arrest if his paper continues to comment on the trial of another top newspaperman.
This follows Ramodibedi’s personal pursuit of contempt of court charges against Bheki Makhubu, editor of respected magazine the Nation, and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.
In another development, young activists who tried to show solidarity at the trial of Makhubu and Maseko were arrested late last month for wearing T-shirts of the banned Peoples United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and charged with sedition.
On May Day two Pudemo leaders were also charged with sedition after addressing a workers’ rally in Manzini. The crime of sedition can carry a 15-year jail sentence.
As a result, fear has gripped the tiny kingdom, to the point that journalists are shying away from reporting on vital issues affecting the rule of law and political dissent.
It has been learnt that on April 28 Ramodibedi summoned the managing editor of the Swazi Observer, Mbongeni Mbingo, to a two-hour grilling at which he ordered the newspaper to cease all commentary on the case of Makhubu and his co-accused Maseko.
This followed a statement by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which Ramodibedi chairs, last month warning the paper against discussing Makhubu and Maseko’s case while it was in court. The JSC alleged that the newspaper was in contempt.
Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi (left) and Judge Mpendulo Simelane. Sources say that King Mswati III is using the two controversial judges to crack down on critical journalists. (The Nation)
“Ramodibedi said this was a final warning, failing which the Observer‘s journalists would find themselves in the same predicament as Makhubu and Maseko,” a source told the Mail & Guardian.
The Observer is owned by King Mswati’s personal investment arm, Tibiyo taka Ngwane. Despite this, the paper had been taking a boldly independent line on the Makhubu trial.
In marked contrast with Swaziland’s other daily newspaper, the Times of Swaziland, it has defended press freedom, which many local journalists and lawyers say is under increasing threat from the Swazi judiciary under Ramodibedi’s leadership.
Significantly, the managing editor of the Times, Martin Dlamini, is on Mswati’s payroll as a “correspondent” of the king’s office.
Mbingo confirmed on Twitter that Ramodibedi had summoned him, but refused to reveal what had happened at the meeting because Ramodibedi had issued an instruction that it was off the record.
“Phew! That was a close call. Just had a[n] almost 2hr session with the CJ [chief justice]. Ngiphunyulile [I managed to get away]. For now,” he tweeted.
The paper has since adopted a far more cautious line on the case, reporting only on court proceedings.
Ramodibedi is a Lesotho citizen who recently stepped down as president of the appeal court in Lesotho, apparently in a move to avoid an impeachment process in which he is accused of unconstitutional conduct and fraud, among other charges.
He has personally pursued the vendetta against top Swazi journalists. As the world celebrated Press Freedom Day on May 3, Makhubu and Maseko had spent more than a month in jail following contempt charges brought by Ramodibedi – in response to critical articles about the judiciary in the Nation.
In the magazine’s February edition, Makhubu accused Ramodibedi of “massaging the law to suit his agenda” following the detention of the government’s chief vehicle inspector, Bhantshana Gwebu, also for contempt of court.
Gwebu had arrested and charged a high court driver, Vusi Tsela, for allegedly abusing a government vehicle to transport a judge, Esther Ota, on a personal errand.
In a case in which he is complainant, prosecutor and judge, Ramodibedi refused Gwebu legal representation when he appeared before him. Gwebu is out on bail after spending nine days in prison, but his trial date remains unknown.
In the March edition of the Nation, Maseko described Ramodibedi’s handling of Gwebu’s case as a “kangaroo process”. The furious chief justice ordered Maseko’s and the editor’s arrest on March 18, on charges they deny. In their trial, which is still in progress, they have argued that the prosecution is political.
Ramodibedi appears to have intervened in the case once again after high court judge Mumcy Dlamini released the two men after they had challenged the chief justice’s power to issue warrants of arrests. The judge agreed that Ramodibedi had acted ultra vires, as only a magistrate could issue warrants of arrests. Ramodibedi opposed the application.
Two days later the two were re-arrested in terms of a warrant issued by trial judge Mpendulo Simelane, who charged them for not appearing in court for their remand. He said the accused were still in custody because Ramodibedi had appealed against Dlamini’s decision.
Well-placed sources at the Swazi high court said they understand that the two accused are likely to go to jail for not less than three years without the option of a fine.
Makhubu was sentenced to an effective two years in jail, or a R200 000 fine, in an earlier contempt case brought by Ramodibedi over another critical column in the Nation. The case is on appeal.
Ramodibedi could not be contacted this week, but the M&G asked the registrar of the high court, Fikile Nhlabatsi, to pass on a request for an interview. In the past Ramodibedi has made it clear that he does not grant interviews to the media.
Although he was also criticised in the articles in question, Simelane refused to recuse himself from the case when the defence team applied for him to do so. He gave no reasons.
In court, defence lawyer Lucas Maziya has accused Simelane of taking notes only when the prosecution presents its evidence, while he rolled his eyes and paid no attention when the defence took the floor.
The Law Society of Swaziland has filed a case in the high court challenging Simelane’s appointment as a judge, arguing that he does not qualify for the job. Swaziland’s newly adopted Constitution stipulates that judges must have served as attorneys for 10 years – a requirement Simelane does not meet.
Insiders claim that Mswati has endorsed the judicial crackdown. A political insider alleged that Mswati appointed the current minister of justice and constitutional affairs, Sibusiso Shongwe – despite a fraud case hanging over his head – so that he could deal with dissenters through the judiciary.
“Shongwe boasted to us that the king trusts him to deal with those who are tarnishing the image of the country,” said a source close to the minister.
At the time of his appointment, Shongwe was a member of the JSC and a practising attorney. He could not be reached for comment this week.
The JSC, chaired by the chief justice, lent its weight to the 2011 sacking of independent-minded judge Thomas Masuku, who had dared to criticise the king in a ruling. Ramodibedi, who accused Masuku of misconduct, presided over the matter, in which he was also the complainant.
Also in 2011, Swazi lawyers went on strike for almost two months in protest against an instruction handed down by the chief justice that the judiciary should not countenance any cases in which the institution of the monarchy is a respondent.
Meanwhile, seven members of the proscribed Pudemo opposition group are out on bail after they were arrested for wearing T-shirts bearing the logo of the organisation.
They were taken into custody outside the high court after police barred them from entering to hear the case against Makhubu and Maseko.
Pudemo president Mario Masuku and the leader of its youth wing, Maxwell Dlamini, were also still in custody at the time of writing after they were arrested after a May Day rally, at which police allege that they shouted “Away with Mswati!” They were refused bail. “The crackdown is orchestrated from the top,” said a source. Government spokesperson Percy Simelane strongly denied this.
Asked whether Mswati is concerned about the conduct of the Makhubu and Maseko case, and particularly the trial judge’s refusal to recuse himself from a matter in which he has a personal interest, Simelane said the Swazi judiciary was independent and free from interference by the king.
“It is a contempt of court case – that’s it.”
Asked whether the king was concerned about the international fallout from the trial, which has prompted expressions of concern by both the European Union and the United States ambassadors in Swaziland, Simelane said: “So many things have been said about this and other matters, only to find it’s all lies.”