In an astonishing move, the semi-autonomous regulatory body, ESCCOM, turned down applications for temporary licences for two community radio stations. Taking advantage of the outbreak of Covid-19 in March, two community radio aspirants sought to assist government in containing the virus in their communities but the regulatory body had other ideas. The same Covid-19 was used as one of the reasons for frustrating it from issuing the licences, writes VUYISILE HLATSHWAYO
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the parastatal Eswatini Communications Commission’s unspoken policy of keeping privately owned community broadcasters – particularly those seen as political dissidents – off the air.
EmaSwati long for the kind of community radio they see operating in neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique.
However, the state broadcaster, the Eswatini Broadcasting and Information Service (EBIS), has a 56-year-old monopoly which it inherited from the colonial era and which the government and royal family clearly wish to maintain.
Citing the Covid-19 lockdown, the Broadcasting Guidelines of 2017 and the lack of a Broadcasting Act, the commission recently turned down three applications for temporal community broadcasting licences.
The applicants said they were aiming to raise awareness of Covid-19 and improve health education at community level.
The initial application was by the six-member Swaziland Community Multimedia Network (SCMN) representing Shiselweni Community Radio (SCR) and Lubombo Community Radio (LCR, which has been trying to secure a broadcast licence for more than 20 years.
The SCMN was formed in 2013 by grassroots groups who wanted their own radio stations. During the HIV/Aids pandemic, they aimed to help contain the disease in rural areas.
Such activism is once again required – since March, eSwatini has recorded 3 599 Covid-19 infections and 65 deaths.
Acting on behalf of the community stations, SCMN applied for two temporal broadcasting licences. Its national coordinator, Ambrose Zwane, a well-known champion of community radio, submitted a letter of application on April 22 this year, as Covid-19 was taking off in the region.
In his response on May 14, the regulator’s chief executive, Mvilawemphi Dlamini, commented on the “valid” motives for the application.
But he still went ahead and rejected it, arguing that “the application for the two temporal licences is made by a single entity, being the Swaziland Community Multimedia Network”.
“The commission cannot issue two licences to a single entity as that would be in contrast with clause 5.4 (11) of the Broadcasting Guidelines, 2017. This provides that ‘a person shall not hold more than one community radio licence at any one time’,” he wrote.
His second justification was that the commission “could not carry out the necessary preliminary assessments … before a broadcasting licence could be granted, due to the prevailing partial lockdown in the country.”
The LCR and SRC then applied separately, the former on May 20 and the latter on June 1, providing as their motivation the need to combat the spread of Covid-19.
Dlamini’s response, on June 4, was to shift the goalposts. Again rejecting the applications, he said that a draft Broadcasting Bill, which would provide for a new licensing regime, was currently before parliament for finalisation.
And because there was no legislation, the regulations required to govern broadcasting were also not in place.
He told the applicants that “the commission has found it proper to wait for the enactment of the Broadcasting Bill”, after which temporary and permanent licences could be granted.
The struggle for community broadcasting in eSwatini began over 20 years ago, and the Broadcasting Guidelines of 2017 were supposed to fill the vacuum created by the lack of legislation governing broadcasting services.
Their purpose was to assist the commission in issuing licences and spectrum to applicants.
The Swaziland Communications Commission Act of 2013 stipulates that the guidelines apply to all existing and prospective radio and television broadcasting service providers, pending “the promulgation of a Broadcasting Bill and corresponding regulations”.
“The guidelines …shall be applicable until such time that the Commission indicates and shall be superseded by the promulgation of the Swaziland Broadcasting Bill and corresponding regulations,” state the guidelines.
Zwane, a diehard Rastafarian, said one reason that the LCR is still without a broadcasting licence after 21 years of trying is that the authorities perceive him as a political dissident.
On a number of occasions, he said, he had been advised to cut his dreadlocks to appear presentable to the authorities.
“I’ve maintained that my locks should not stop anybody from being issued a community radio licence. That I’m the face of a community radio initiative does not mean I must change who I am,” he said.
“I told them that the focus shouldn’t be on me but on benefits of community radio to the people.”
His grandfather, Dr. Ambrose Phesheya Zwane, may also be an impediment. He was a Pan-Africanist and founder of opposition party the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress.
The Lubombo region, where the LCR is based, was a congress stronghold in days gone by.
Zwane accused the regulator of hiding behind the lockdown, pointing out that as eSwatini’s Covid-19 regulations classify the media as an essential service, there is no legal bar to Dlamini pressing ahead and carrying out preliminary assessments.
He added that the Broadcasting Guidelines provide for the issuing of community broadcast licences, as the commission has used them to license the Voice of the Church Radio, Channel yemaSwati TV and the University of Eswatini Community Radio. It has also licensed EBIS and Eswatini TV.
The government’s Information and Media Development Directorate, which is responsible for legislative and policy development, told the Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism that far from being before parliament for finalisation, the Broadcasting Bill is still being considered by the Commonwealth consultant to whom it was referred to back and forth for 13 years.
In 2013 The Nation magazine reported that Stan Motsa, a former director in the communications ministry, had issued a commercial broadcasting licence to Africa Unite FM without legislation being in place.
This created the impression that certain broadcasters were being given preference. The LCR has been trying to obtain a broadcasting licence since the late 1990s.
As it reports to the Minister of Information and Communication Technology, rather than to parliament, the regulator has lacked independence from day one.
The current minister is King Mswati’s eldest daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, meaning that perceived oppositionists have no chance of entering the broadcast sector.
Price Masitsela, one of the surviving stalwarts of the Imbokodvo National Movement, which strongly supported the monarchy, would not allow any community radio stations to operate for fear of giving a voice to pro-democracy groups.
He has the full weight of the guidelines behind him. They state that “an applicant shall not be eligible for a community broadcasting licence if the applicant is a political party or entity, or office in that“.
Zwane insists that he has no hidden agenda, and that his sole purpose is to ensure the free flow of information in the country.