ESCCOM: an enabler or gatekeeper in the broadcasting sector?

ESCCOM: an enabler or gatekeeper in the broadcasting sector?

By Ackel Zwane

The eSwatini government has been criticised for trying to curb free speech by favouring radio stations linked to the state over independent community radio stations. In 2007 the Broadcasting Bill, which is aimed at opening up the airwaves to allow licensing for independent community radio stations, was made public. The draft law was adopted by eSwatini’s Parliament as well as the Senate at the end of 2020 but it has still not been signed into law by King Mswati III.

While government has blamed the Covid pandemic for the delay, the eSwatini Communications Commission (ESCCOM) says that it is unable to license any community radio stations until the Broadcasting Bill is signed into law.

Community Radio Network Coordinator, Ambrose Zwane, says government is using this situation to discriminate against community radio stations. He says there is no legal reason for authorities to deny community radio stations licences. The country’s Swaziland iCommunications Commission Act 2013, he argues, allows authorities to license community radio stations. The University of eSwatini Radio Station, for example, was issued a licence in 2016 while other community radio stations continued to be denied licences. The commission has, however not been able to issue licences to all the others that applied and met requirements for licensing in line with section 50 of the Communications Act. No explanations are given with rejected applications.

In response to questions about which laws discouraged the licensing of community radio stations in Eswatini, ESCCOM revealed that it is “in accordance with the provisions of Section 50 (1) of the Electronic Communications Act, 2013, which enjoins the Commission to issue licences to entities who were in existence prior to the establishment of ESCCOM”.

But it is also clear that section 50. (1) states that the “commission shall issue new licences to existing licensees lawfully providing electronic communications networks or services consistent with the provisions of this Act immediately before the date of coming into force of this Act, except that all material terms of the previous licence shall be conformed to this Act.”

ESCCOM’s argument that it can only issue licenses to entities who were in existence prior to the commission’s existence in 2013 also seems to be at odds with the fact that it approved the university radio station’s license application in 2016.

ESCCOM Chief Executive Mvilawemphi Dlamini says: “Licensing of new radio stations will only be considered when the Broadcasting Act becomes law and its associated Regulations that will provide for the licensing procedures.”

When Inhlase submitted further questions as to why the university radio station could be licensed under existing legislation but other community stations could not be, ESCCOM’s Communications Manager, Fisiwe Vilane, did not respond. She insists that this question has been answered many times. 

Zwane believes that there is a very simple reason for denying community radio stations licences. He says that government fears them and regards them as a threat because they are run by the community, programmed by the community and are all about the community.

“They fear that once they issue licences to these communities they will start broadcasting material against their (government) interests. Similarly here at home, we have tried very hard to get licensed but it is always uphill, telling us that they are developing a policy to regulate community radio but even the regulator that we claim to have is toothless, the regulator cannot do anything without getting instructions from the ministry. It’s been a long time, now going for 25 years and we have made history as Eswatini. Check other countries in the region, Eswatini is the only country in the world that has taken so long. In other countries, it takes two to three years and if delayed, five to seven but for us,” said Zwane

Activists like Zwane also point out that ESCCOM lists “radio licensing” as part of its responsibilities. The regulator provides, under licence duration and renewal subsection that the radio licence shall be valid for a period of twelve months from the date of issue. The applicant shall apply for renewal at least thirty (30) days before date of expiry. On licence revocation; in accordance with the Electronic Communications Act, this radio licence may be revoked by the Commission should the licencee cease to meet the provisions of any of these terms or conditions attached to the radio licence, or cease to use the licensed equipment and/or spectrum for the purposes set out in the radio licence; and on withdrawal of radio licence the licensee shall within six months from the date of issue of the license commence operations in default of which the licence shall lapse. The Authority may, subject to the provisions of the Electronic Communications Act, amend, suspend or withdraw the licence.

Zwane says that: “If you log onto their website everything looks perfect and normal. A colleague on the media fraternity in one African country wondered why we were complaining because it is all simple and clean in the website, with the licensing process having been approved a long time ago. That is how they portray themselves to the international community as if there is something happening when on the ground it is the opposite,” said Zwane.

Activists in eSwatini also question whether ESCCOM is indeed independent as it is required to be and whether commissioners are appointed based on their ability to do government’s bidding. Section 3 (2) of the Communications Commission Act states that the commission shall be independent and shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority.

The Africa Media Barometer raises questions that the process of appointing commissioners undermines the body’s independence.

“The Minister of Information Communication and Technology has all the powers concerning the appointment of the commissioners and civil society was not engaged in the appointment process.

According to the law, the members of the board should represent certain sectors or stakeholders in society. However, the minister chooses his people without consulting these stakeholders. He appointed a brickmaker, with no experience in the sector, as chairman of the commission.”

“If you look at the people who are there, you will see that the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] is one of the princes, the CFO [Chief Financial Officer], was appointed when her father was the prime minister and so forth. It is being manipulated by the ruling elite and is simply not independent. Rather than independent, it is autonomous,” states the African Media Barometer.

Such appointments also run counter to the Public Enterprises Monitoring Act. This states that all members except the chief executive officer of all governing bodies at category ‘A’ public enterprises, which includes this commission must be appointed by the minister responsible in consultation with parliament. 

Appointments to each governing body must also reflect an overall balance of technical, professional, commercial and financial skills.

While community radio stations that have not been successful in their licence application continue to broadcast online while they wait for the Broadcasting Bill to be signed into law by King Mswati, favoured stations continue to get licences. This include the Eswatini Broadcasting and Information Service which is the state-owned broadcast and print information provider of Eswatini. It essentially wields total control over all media within the country and was founded in 1966 as a radio broadcaster but merged with print media in the early 1970s. Also among the successful licence applications is Channel Yemaswati (formerly Channel S) launched in 2001 and the Voice of the Church.

Included in the list of unsuccessful bidders are Lubombo Community Radio (LCR) which was the first community radio in Eswatini and established in February 1999. Now there are other community radio initiatives in the other three regions but have not been successful because of the licence issues; these are Shiselweni Community Radio popular known as Matsanjeni Community Radio, there is also Hhohho and Mankayane initiatives.

Eswatini Broadcasting and Information ServiceLubombo Community Radio
Channel YemaswatiMatsanjeni Community Radio
Voice of the ChurchShiselweni Community Radio
University of Eswatini RadioHhohho Community Radio
 Radio Sikhuphe

While community radio stations campaign for the broadcasting legislation to be signed into law, they have also made it clear that they will not be used for propaganda purposes once they have been issued licences. These stations have taken this stance as eSwatini’s political climate remains volatile and as government tried to crack down on a pro-democracy movement  that is demanding political reforms in a country that is now Africa’s last absolute monarchy.  

Last year, the pro-democracy uprising led to violent clashes with police. While many citizens lost their lives or were maimed during the June protests last yet, the violence continues to this day with the burning and petrol bombing of homes belonging to either pro-democracy activists or security agents, particularly police and members of the army. A special envoy of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) headed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, was tasked with formulating a roadmap for a national dialogue by all stakeholders last November. It has been reported that this roadmap has been delivered to King Mswati’s government. It is unclear, however, if the national dialogue will ever take place and, if it does, whether it will offer a real opportunity for reform. 

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