Thulani Maseko: The advocate for press freedom

Thulani Maseko: The advocate for press freedom


Today marks exactly a month since the brutal assassination of Thulani Maseko, the unflinching human rights defender and advocate for political freedom. His life was snuffed out by a callous murderer as he watched TV with his wife and children on the fateful night of the 21st of January 2023.

News of Maseko’s brutal murder reverberated across the globe, triggering an outburst of tributes and condemnations from reputable human rights defenders and activists. From the office of the UN General Secretary António Guterres to the US State Department, there were loud calls for a transparent investigation into Maseko’s murder. 

In all messages of homage, Maseko has been venerated as an outstanding human rights lawyer and political activist, who persistently advocated for peaceful means to achieve political freedom.  But in all the eulogies, very little is said about Thulani Maseko the columnist and his contribution to journalism in eSwatini. 

TR, as Maseko was affectionately known in the legal circles, was a prolific writer. He was a columnist for The Nation magazine for almost a decade. It was his stinging articles in January and February 2014, that resulted in him and editor Bheki Makhubu jailed two years for contempt of court. 

In a country where very few dare to opine publicly in fear of retribution and victimization, Maseko was one of the very few columnists you would bank on to write about any subject matter-whether it involves royalty, the judiciary or the political elite. He was blessed with a unique writing style characterized by clear cut analysis and simplification of legal matters. 

He wrote simple and plain English, eschewing legal jargons – an uncharacteristic trait for legal practitioners, who most often flaunt their grasp of Latin and big English words.  Maseko wrote in simple English so even layman in law could get the gist of the matters he was explicating. He elucidated complex legal matters and crystalized human rights issues for the benefit of readers. 

His articles were peppered with anecdotes and popular quotes from iconic figures like Nelson Mandela, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and other trailblazing human right defenders and social justice activists. Before writing for The Nation, Maseko had a short stint as a columnist for the Swazi Observer, a daily newspaper owned by the royal conglomerate Tibiyo Taka Ngwane. 

In his June 2014 column, Maseko revealed that he stopped writing for the Observer after an editor told him that “the owners and directors of the newspaper had questioned why they allowed the expression of views that were critical to the manner and system of government”. 

Maseko advocated for press freedom and the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the 2005 Swaziland Constitution. “…we believe that freedom of speech and expression, together with freedom of association and assembly are at the heart of a democratic society”, he wrote in his June 2014 article. 

He stressed, in most of his articles, the need for the government to respect press freedom and to ensure that citizens enjoy their constitutional right to freely express themselves. He once wrote: “In the absence of [an] independent and fearless media; there can be no freedom of speech and expression because the media is the vehicle through which citizens express their views”. 

Moreover, Maseko firmly believed that press freedom is a human right. In fact, he saw the two as inextricably linked. “…in order that the rights of all citizens are protected, the media must be free and protected by the supreme law. It is a free, independent and inquisitive press that is able to report and thus reveal and expose human rights abuses whether by public officers or private persons”, he wrote. 

He frowned upon draconian pieces of legislation and customary laws which infringe on the people’s right to freely express themselves. He was highly critical of exorbitant libel damages awarded by the courts against the media. Maseko saw this as a deliberate attempt by the judiciary to stifle media freedom and to silence those who are critical of the state. In his June 2018 article, Maseko noted: “Recently, journalists and the editors forum complained about the attack by the judiciary on the freedom of expression and of the media in Swaziland”.

Maseko also closely monitored how the media reported on political, legal and human rights matters in eSwatini. When the SABC interviewed King Mswati III in October 2016, soon after the monarch had assumed chairmanship of SADC, Maseko penned a piece responding to what the king had said in the interview. In the article, he also raised concerns about the quality of the questions that were posed to the king. Maseko wrote: “Nothing that His Majesty said gets anywhere near the truth in so far as the governance of Swaziland is concerned…His Majesty acknowledges that many of the conflicts in the region cannot and will not be resolved through the barrel of a gun. The question that was not put to His Majesty is; why is it that some, as he claimed, resort to the use of the barrel of a gun to resolve conflicts?

Like a fearless journalist, Maseko’s articles spoke truth to power. When King Mswati changed the country’s name from Swaziland to eSwatini in 2018, Maseko was the only columnists who openly criticized the monarch for this arbitrary decision. He was unequivocal that the manner in which the change of the country’s name had been done was unconstitutional. Wrote Maseko: “It is not so much the name change that one is concerned with; it is rather the manner in which it has been done. It has again taken the stroke of one man, and one man alone to change the name of the country”.

Furthermore, Maseko excelled in performing two of the primary purposes of journalism; informing and educating. He kept the public informed about developments in the body politics of Eswatini and he also used his articles to educate the public on constitutionalism and human rights. In most of his articles, he would highlight the shortcomings of the Swaziland constitution and further provides clues on how its deficiency could be rectified.

In all his writings, Maseko always advocated for a peaceful settlement to the eSwatini political impasse. He chose his words carefully; avoiding using language that could be seen as inciting violence or be construed as hate speech. While his enormous contribution to the legal practice, specifically in the field of human rights, is well documented, equally he will go down in history as one of eSwatini’s eminent columnist on legal and human rights affairs. Maseko’s contribution to journalism in eSwatini ought not to be ignored. It forms part of his legacy.

(Khulekani Nene is a Masters in Journalism student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)

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