By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo
The Eswatini monarchy’s fraught relationship with the free press has seen eSwatini performing dismally in the world press freedom rankings over the years. In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Eswatini ranking is 111/180 and its global score is 52.66 compared to 131/180 ranking and 46.42 score of last year. The Reporters Without Borders (RWB) report blames Eswatini’s poor world press freedom ranking on the monarchy’s prevention of the journalists to work freely and independently.
In an unprecedented move in May 2021 King Mswati III and his government took the South Africa-based and registered Swaziland News, a leading eSwatini online newspaper, to court in South Africa to stop it publishing articles critical of the king. They filed at the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court an application to compel it and its editor Zweli Martin Dlamini, to give at least seven days’ notice before publishing any article which is ‘defamatory and or critical’ of the king and or the Government, Ministers or any member of the Swazi Royal Family.
The monarch also wants the editor to send any written story and or content to the Government official spokesperson and his deputy before publication and give them seven days to ‘read the whole story so they can comment accordingly’. Avuleka Amazulu (Pty) Ltd, the company that provides the website is also included in the application. The matter is still pending before the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa.
In addition, on 30 June last year, Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini declared the Swaziland Newspaper and its editor as “terrorists”. The Cleopas Dlamini-led government does not entertain questions from online publications except from the Eswatini Positive News (EPN) which replaced the controversial Vuma Reputation Management company in October 2021. According to acting director of information and media development Senani Khumalo, the government only works with accredited online publications. She told Inhlase that the Eswatini Communication Commission (ESCCOM) has been instructed to craft a policy to guide the government and departments on how to treat online publications. She also confirmed to Inhlase that this applies even to legally registered online publications.
In a telephonic interview, Swati Newsweek editor, Eugene Dube, confirmed that the eSwatini government does not want to take questions from the emerging independent online publications. He strongly believes that the government officials hate the new emerging independent online publications.
“They don’t respond if the story is critical. However, if the story is positive, they are likely to respond. I must say that the Swati Newsweek Online has tried to get comments from the government ministries but they don’t respond at all or say they don’t work with the online publications,” he said.
Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) President, Welcome Dlamini, who is deputy editor at Eswatini Times Sunday, condemns the government’s denial of information to the online media. In an interview with Inhlase, he said whatever the reason might be it can never justify why the government ministries and the police can choose not to respond to questions from the media. He explains that these public entities, which are wholly funded by the taxpayers, are obligated to provide public information which is a public good.
“Government ministries and the police are public entities that should always subject themselves to media/public scrutiny. They are obligated to provide information to the media because that is one of the ways they account to the public for what is happening in these institutions,” he says adding: “These institutions are wholly funded by taxpayers and they have to respond to media questions, whether these are online or traditional media houses. Refusal to respond to any of these media houses is a direct attack on press freedom,” he said.
Dlamini decries that failure to respond to the questions is against the media principle on balancing information before it is published. He points out that it also deprives the very same government institutions their right to have their side heard. He promises that SNAJ will engage with whosoever is responsible to ensure that the media, both online and traditional, get responses from the sources.
An Inhlase snap survey of 10 stories published by the Swaziland News shows that the government and its departments do not respond to its requests for comments to balance its stories. Hence, the Swaziland News always mentions that the spokespeople “had not responded at the time of the compilation of this report”.
Speaking to Inhlase, Ambrose Zwane, who chaired the coalition of the Swaziland Community Radio Network Initiative (SCRNI), revealed that despite the passing of the Broadcasting Bill 2020, ESCCOM has failed to issue community radio licences to members of the SCRNI. As a result, the community radio sector has resolved to venture into online broadcasting.
“This means we will use that platform to put more pressure on them strategically. We are about to finalise our website, so that we can broadcast online. It has taken us more than two decades to get a community radio licence for our Lubombo community radio,” he said.
This hostility between government and media is not new as it can be traced back to 1973 when the then Deputy Prime Minister Zonke Khumalo considered the Times of Swaziland denunciation of the banning of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), the opposition, lèse-majesté. Yet the legendary Queen Regent Labotsibeni Mdluli, whose second name is Gwamile, meaning the indomitable Gwamile, had started on a good footing. Groomed by Labotsibeni, King Sobhuza II, had cultivated cordial relationships with the free press. His Times editor companion, John Spicer from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), described his reign as the golden age of Swazi journalism.
In his book The Press of Africa: Persecution & Perseverance, which featured John Spicer profile headlined Swaziland: The Light at the End of the Tunnel, Frank Burton, writes that “the King knew more of what was going on in the country than what the political leaders chose to tell him by reading the Times and this prevented the paper from being banned.”
Although the State of Emergency imposed after the 1973 repeal of the Westminster Independence Constitution restricted the Times from reporting political issues, Spicer ran a special edition and editorial headlined: “It is wrong to detain people without trial.” He made it his mission to find out the names of those who had been detained and picked up by the police, he printed them. This was an unprecedented act for newspapers in Africa.
The Times also exposed as much of corruption as it dared, and made many enemies and friends alike – among the establishment.
But Spicer stirred the hornets’ nest when he published the findings of a confidential report on the Ministry of Information under the headline: “The Ministry of Concealed Information.” Deputy Prime Minister Zonke Khumalo, who had considered the Times denunciation of the banning of the opposition lèse-majesté, warned Spicer to ‘watch his qs and ps’. Spicer took it as his ‘tickets’ – the term which had come to mean the swift end of a white journalist in Black Africa.
To escape his wrath, Spicer ran in the next Times issue, a picture on the front page showing the King shaking his hand. He reckoned that if the Deputy Prime Minister had considered it lèse-majesté of him to question the banning of the members of the opposition party, it might well be lèse-majesté to deport a man who had actually shaken the monarch’s hand.
This may have done the trick for Spicer at the time, but Khumalo’s usage of lèse-majesté, which means insulting the monarch or a disrespectful behaviour, came to define the Eswatini monarchy’s fraught relationship with the free press for many more years to come.
While so much is known about the eSwatini monarchy’s fraught relationship with the free press, very little, if any, is known about its instrumental role in the establishment of the free press in Southern Africa.
All the credit goes to Labotsibeni who defied all odds to join the male-dominated league of the educated founders of the African free press in the likes of John Tengo Jabavu and Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje. Without formal education, the exceptionally intelligent stateswoman understood the power of the pen and printed word as well as the significance of access to information.
In her reign, she recognised how the colonisers were using the Swaziland Times as their mouthpiece to further the imperialist interests. As the pressing issues of oppression, landlessness and poverty affecting the Africans gave her sleepless nights, Labotsibeni bought into Pixley Ka Isaka Seme’s idea of forming the progressive Abantu-Batho newspaper in October 1912. According to A History of Abantu-Batho Newspaper 1912-1931, published by the South African online, Labotsibeni invested £3 000 in the founding and sustaining the paper. Abantu-Batho newspaper was an official mouthpiece of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), later renamed as the African National Congress (ANC).
Labotsibeni was an astute entrepreneur who treated this venture as a purely business decision to partner with Seme and company, thus making her a shareholder and Seme a managing director of Abantu-Batho – a limited liability company. Worth noting is that all the editors were also made directors of the newspaper company.
This multilingual newspaper was published in English, SeSotho, Zulu, Xhosa and SeTswana in order to attract wide readership and honour the SANNC’s goal of being a national organization. It had four editors with Seme at the helm as managing editor. A Swazi-born editor Cleopas Kunene, who was Labotsibeni’s eyes and ears in the company, was responsible for the Zulu and Xhosa sections, while Daniel Simon Letanka headed the SeSotho and SeTswana sections.
Abantu-Batho covered many issues affecting the oppressed blacks in South Africa and Swaziland. It was published irregularly for over two decades, sometimes weekly, monthly or bi-monthly depending on the finances. Abantu-Batho experienced financial constraints in the 1920s which forced it to cease publication in 1931.
Government spokesperson, Rev. Alpheous Nxumalo had not responded to Inhlase at the time of going to press.