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Swazi columnist criticizes king, gets fined ... in cows

About two weeks ago, traditional authorities in the mountain kingdom of Swaziland slapped the nation's most outspoken political columnist, Mfomfo Nkambule, with a fine--to be paid in cows--for criticism of the administration of King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute ruler. 

I caught up the other day with Nkambule, a former member of Parliament and opposition politician whose weekly columns appear in the leading independent daily, the Times of Swaziland. From the capital, Mbabane, he spoke to me about the fine in the context of an ongoing clash between freedom of the press as guaranteed by Article 24 of the Swazi Constitution and traditional customs calling for absolute reverence of the King.

Tensions came to a head last month when Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini threatened to charge Nkambule and other media commentators under the country's Sedition and Subversive Activities Act for critizing a royal address to Parliament. In a column, Nkambule had contended that the monarch's speech failed to address crucial national issues, including the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (at 26.1 percent, according to United Nations statistics), and increasing poverty.

About a month ago, Nkambule received a warning from security forces. "I was summoned by the head of national intelligence and his deputies," he told me. "They said there has been a serious complaint from the powers about articles I've been writing."

Since then, traditional authorities have summoned Nkambule three times with warnings to self-censor his writings. He told me he was recently ordered to buy between four and six cows as a fine to appease the king. He wrote in a column that such a fine could be "disastrous" for his family. Failure to pay the fine could result in the eviction of his family from their homestead under traditional customs but "outside of the jurisdiction of any court," he said.

Nkambule told me the challenges of writing critically about issues of national interest in Swaziland since September 2007 have humbled him about the risks facing professional journalists. "I wasn't aware of what difficulties these guys went through," he said.

"Now I understand why it's a difficult and dangerous profession." Nkambule remained undeterred. "If I pay this fine, then it means I'm apologizing to the king," he went on. "Then I'm forfeiting my freedom of expression. I can't forfeit that right."

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Comments

First of all I just wanna say that I know Mfomfo Nkambule since my High School. He was my Biology and Physical Science teacher at St John Bosco High School. He made an ICT professional out of me.

Regarding Freedom of Expression, there's something that people need to know and that includes the press as well.

The role of the press in a democratic society cannot be understated….It is the function of the press to ferret out corruption, dishonesty and graft wherever it may occur and to expose the perpetrators. The press must reveal dishonest maland inept administration. It must contribute to the exchange of ideas already alluded to. It must advance communication between the governed and those who govern. So, we must not forget that it is the right, and indeed a vital function, of the press to make available to the community information and criticism about every aspect of public, political, social and economic activity and thus to contribute tot eh formation of the public opinion.

About freedom of expression: The right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of the broader concept of 'individual freedom of the mind'. I agree, and I firmly believe, that freedom of expression and of the press are potent and indispensable instruments for the creation and maintenance of a democratic society, but it is trite that such freedom is not, and cannot be permitted to be, totally unrestrained. Laws don't allow the unjustified savaging of an individual’s reputation. The right of free expression enjoyed by all persons, including the press, must yield to the individual’s right, which is just as important, not to be unlawfully defamed. I emphasis the words ‘unlawfully’ for, in striving to achieve an equitable balance between the right to speak your mind and the right not to be harmed by what another says about you.

The King is a public figure and as well as an individual like you and me. His feelings are as important as anyone's feelings. Also, we mustn't forget that being a public figure means you are also exposed to public criticisms. As a leader and King, you lead criticizers who strive to achieve certain goals about their country and economy.

I so wish that Mfomfo can read my comment. Please forward it to him for me.