Thou shalt not report anything unflattering, critical about the monarch

Thou shalt not report anything unflattering, critical about the monarch

As journalists in the Kingdom of eSwatini trudge through the treacherous terrain reporting news stories, one thing has become clear;  King Mswati III and the royal household is off-limits. Currently, some journalists are in hiding in South Africa for daring to report on the health of the king. They are not the first. VUYISILE HLATSWAYO reports.

The Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted the secrecy about King Mswati III’s health, as the traditional elite continues to struggle with the concepts of information rights and media freedom in the digital age.

Various world leaders have publicly disclosed their coronavirus-positive status. EmaSwati, by contrast, were left in the dark when their king dropped out of the public eye after the outbreak of the disease.

The King’s Office Chief Officer, Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze, Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini, Health Minister Lizzie Nkosi and the governor of the Luzidzini Royal Residence, Lusendvo Fakudze, offered no explanation for Mswati’s prolonged absence. This has fuelled the rumour mill.

Speculation was rife that the 52-year-old monarch was battling his alleged infection in Manzana Royal Hospital, which is reserved for the royal family’s use. This was further fuelled by King Mswati’s failure to appear at a media conference scheduled for April 12 that was switched from the Ludzidzini Royal Residence to Lozitha Palace, only to be cancelled late at night, as well as the cancellation of the festivities associated with the King’s Birthday on April 19. 

eSwatini’s emerging online newspapers and citizen journalists alleged that a coronavirus infection was keeping the king away from public life, but the mainstream media shied away from the story. 

Two online newspapers, Swaziland News and Swati Newsweek, incensed the authorities by reporting King Mswati’s alleged illness, violating the customary restriction on commoners prying into the state of the king’s health.

Swaziland News editor Zweli Martin Dlamini wrote that it was alleged that King Mswati had contracted Covid-19 and that his condition was so serious that he had to be admitted to hospital. He also wrote that the king had jetted out of the kingdom at night to receive better medical attention abroad. Dlamini’s attempts to confirm the rumours with Fakudze were in vain, so he used anonymous “senior royal sources” to lend weight to his reports.

Not to be outdone, Swati Newsweek columnist Mfomfo Nkambule and editor Eugene Dube followed suit, also criticised King Mswati and his tinkhundla government with headlines such as “King reckless on Swazis’ health” and “Removing King possible”, which stirred a hornets’ nest in traditional circles.

Responsible for muzzling the media and dissidents for close on 50 years, the Royal Eswatini Police Service sprang into action. Acting on the instructions of National Police Commissioner William Tsitsibala Dlamini, they issued a notice appealing to anyone who knew the whereabouts of Swaziland News editor Dlamini to assist them. 

Because he had apparently fled to South Africa, they reportedly turned their attention to Nompendulo Nokuthula Dlamini, his wife. In court papers, she claimed that the police handcuffed and suffocated her by putting a plastic bag over her head.

This is the second timeDlamini has skipped the border after antagonisingthe Swazi authorities. In mid-December 2018, he got a tip-off that the police wanted to arrest him because of his investigative stories into deals involving Victor Gamedze, a businessman with connections to the royal family.

Swati Newsweek editor Dube also reportedly skipped the border after labadzala (elders) had set the police on him. He alleged that the police detained him and confiscated his laptop, cellphones and notepads. The police denied this, saying that they only took him in for questioning. 

Dube’s escape allegedly followed a tip-off he received warning him that he was to be charged with sedition and spreading misinformation on Covid-19. Under the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (amended in 1983), sedition carries a penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.

In a statement, government spokesperson Sabelo Dlamini dismissed media reports, saying: “His Majesty is well and in good health. Such fabrication perpetuated by elements intent on sowing confusion and panic is unacceptable and appalling.” 

Dlamini had the full weight of the law behind him. Article 29, sub-section 1 (c) and (d) of eSwatini’s Coronavirus Regulations, issued earlier this year, provides that “a person … institution or organisation shall not publish any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about Covid-19 and use print or electronic media on the Covid-19 infection status of any person.” 

Any person or organisation that contravenes the regulations is liable to a fine of up to E20 000 or imprisonment for up to five years.

The regulations also stipulate that no one may use the print or electronic media to publish information about Covid-19 without the health ministry’s permission, in what amounts to censorship on a major public health issue. 

King Mswati returned to public life on May 7 at a press conference at Ludzidzini, where he commanded emaSwati to adhere to Covid-19 preventative measures. Whether he had contracted the coronavirus has not been answered.

The media has had numerous run-ins with the powers that be for daring to probe the issue of the king’s wellbeing and breaking the unspoken commandment: thou shalt not report anything unflattering or critical about him.

In 2000, the proprietors of the Swazi Observer, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, temporarily closed down the newspaper because its editors refused to disclose its sources for stories relating to police corruption. 

In 2001 the police arrested Thulani Mthethwa, editor of the now defunct Guardian newspaper, and interrogated him at the Mbabane police headquarters about stories he had published about the king’s health and rumours that his first wife, Inkhosikati laMbikiza, had tried to poison him. 

Thepublication had earlier published a photo of the queen crying at Matsapha International Airport as she prepared to board a plane for London. It alleged that the king had expelled her from the royal palace. 

That same year, the then minister of public service and information, Mntozima Dlamini, invoked the Proscribed Publications Act of 1968 to ban both The Guardian and The Nation newspapers, on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. The law gives the minister the power to ban or suspend publications that do not conform to “Swazi morality and ideals.” 

The Nation settled the matter out of court, but The Guardian, founded by sacked journalists from the state-owned Swazi Observer, shut down after its protracted legal challenge to the banning dragged on unresolved in the court of appeal.

In 2012 the Observer’s editor-in-chief, Musa Ndlangamandla, fled to South Africa after learning that the police wanted to arrest him on charges under the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008. He had been fired earlier in the year after publishing interviews with leaders of banned pro-democracy groups in his daily column. 

Back in 1999, the Times of Swaziland Sunday editor, Bheki Makhubu, was arrested for publishing an article describing the king’s new fiancée, Senteni Masango, as a “high school dropout” and attributing her expulsion from school to lack of discipline. 

Under royal pressure, the Times management allegedly sacked Makhubu for turning the newspaper into “a weekly political newsletter”, and the police detained and charged him with high treason, later changing the charge to one of criminal defamation. 

Minister Magwagwa Mdluli hired a lawyer to draft a Character Assassination Bill and redraft the Media Council Bill due to “Makhubu’s conduct of irresponsible reporting”. 

In a Misa Swaziland report So This is Democracy, legal practitioner Cyril Maphanga, now a judge of the High Court, noted that the events surrounding Makhubu’s arrest triggered a domino effect that led to other informal media restrictions. 

Maphanga wrote that the various editors, directors and proprietors of the print and broadcast media fell foul of the authorities for reporting on Makhubu’s case and the ensuing debates. 

“They were routinely summoned by the [traditional] Swaziland National Council for tongue-lashings and warnings of dire consequences if they persisted in reporting on the matter. There was a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and fear.” 

In 2014 Makhubu, now the editor of The Nation magazine, and columnist Thulani Maseko  spent 15 months in jail after daring to criticise the conduct of then Swaziland chief justice Michael Ramodipedi, who enjoyed the king’s favour. 

Also exerting a chilling effect on the media was the Court of Appeal’s award of R500 000 in damages to the Senate president Chief Gelane Zwane, who claimed to have been defamed by the Times of Swaziland. The paper had published a story that questioned the chief’s paternity. The huge size of the award was seen as reflecting the court’s subservient attitude to the traditional authorities.

Since then, the Swazi media has walked through a minefield when reporting on royal matters that are shrouded in secrecy. 

Mswati’s official mouthpieces cannot be trusted, as citizens discovered when the government led by former prime minister Barnabas Dlamini claimed that Mswati’s jet was a gift from a benefactor when it was in fact bought with public funds from the Salgaocar Ore Company.

The absence of a media officer in the King’s Office who can counter the climate of silence and censorship has been a major stumbling block for the kingdom’s struggling media.

eSwatini formally endorses the values of freedom of information and media freedom. Section 24 of its 2005 constitution states that “a person has a right to freedom of expression and opinion” and “shall not, except with free consent of that person, be hindered in the enjoyment of the freedom of expression, which includes the freedom of the press and other media”. 

This analysis was produced by the Inhlase Centre for Investigative Journalism, in association with IJ Hub.

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