Swazi PM threatens to censor journalists

 In a statement published last Tuesday in the state-owned Swazi Observer newspaper the Prime Minister, Sibusiso Dlamini accused news columnists of tarnishing the name of the country and taking bribes from foreign parties. He announced his intention to create a law that requires journalists to seek permission before publishing any article which is critical of the government. No further detail is provided about what the law would require or when it may be enacted.

 

This move has been criticised as “step backwards” and contrary to Swaziland’s Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression. The media in Swaziland already operate under difficult conditions characterised by state-induced fear and censorship and this move has the potential of worsening the situation. According to Jabu Matsebula, secretary and coordinator of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum (SEF), this law would target a handful of specific journalists which regularly criticise the government’s decisions and policies.

 The Swazi government does not have a good record when it comes to protecting the freedom of the press and has been seen to interfere on many an occasion. The Prime Minister’s statement follows death threats in July made by Swazi Royal family against journalists over their critical coverage of the country’s leadership and a fine against a journalist working for Times of Swaziland, an independent newspaper, who criticised the King’s personal relationships. Publishers, who rely heavily on advertisements from the government, are under increasing pressure to subdue new stories in order to protect their newspapers from being impounded and their journalists from being arrested.

 A US Report on Swaziland outlines that although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, these rights may be waived by the King – the absolute monarch – at any time. In addition, while there are no laws banning or restricting criticism of the monarchy or other officials, journalists have been warned that publishing any such criticism could be construed as treason. The law empowers the government to ban publications if they are seen to be “prejudical or potentially prejudicial to the interests of defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health” so most journalists practice self-censorship.

 In 2008, the attorney general warned that criticising the government could be seen as supporting terrorists and journalists could be arrested under the Suppression of Terrorism Act. In previous years defamation laws have also been used to restrict the press. Over the years, threats to journalists from the government and royal family have ranged from being evicted from their homes to closure of their media outlets. In view of this, the announcement by the Prime Minister does not come as a surprise.

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