An alleged sex scandal involving one of the wives of Africa's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland, has made worldwide headlines. Yet, in the southern African mountain kingdom, media coverage has been subdued, shying away from questioning the silence of the monarchy over the reports.
So, while City Press, a newspaper in neighboring
South Africa, went as far as publishing an exclusive photo
showing the alleged moment when married Swazi Justice and Constitutional
Affairs Minister Ndumiso Mamba was caught in a hotel room with the Inkhosikati
LaDube, King Mswati's 12th wife, both the government daily and
newspaper Times of Swaziland barely reported
that the minister was forced to resign following unspecified "allegations"
The Times, however, reported that Swazi
plainclothes police arrested a man on Tuesday in the commercial capital,
Manzini, for photocopying the City Press
article. The paper quoted Swazi Police Deputy Public Relations Officer
Superintendent Wendy Hleta as confirming that the Criminial Investigation
Department had charged the man with "contravening the Copyright Act."
No wonder. Media in Swaziland, a small country landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, is strictly controlled
by the king. All radio stations are under the state agency known as the Swaziland
Broadcasting and Information Service (SBIS). The head of the
government, Swaziland Prime Minister Barnabas
Dlamini, is editor-in-chief of SBIS and state television station Swazi TV.
The only other TV station in Swaziland,
Channel Swazi, is privately owned but follows the monarch's line in news
broadcasts. One of Swaziland's
two newspaper groups, the Swazi Observer
Group, is part of a company that is in effect owned by King Mswati. That leaves
of Swaziland as the only independent newspaper in the kingdom.
Media is generally frightened of the power the
king wields. The Times has fallen afoul
of him in the past. In 2007, King Mswati ordered the Times Sunday to publish an apology for an article it sourced from Norway that said
the king was partly responsible for Swaziland's economic ills. He also
demanded that the features editor of the Times
Sunday be dismissed for allowing the report to be published and warned the
newspaper never again refer to him as a "dictator" (even though the report did
not use this word). The King said if his demands were not met he would close
down the Times Sunday and the other
newspapers published by its owner. The publisher went along with the demands.
More recently, in 2009, the Times was forced to make an abject public
apology to King Mswati after it reported that he had
bought 20 luxury and armored Mercedes Benz S600 Pullman Guard cars that cost US$250,000 each. The story was true and had been
published extensively by news media internationally.
As a result, censorship and self-censorship
is rife in the Swaziland
published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa in 2008 revealed that fear
of the monarchy and the power it has over the kingdom and media houses within
it was by far the main cause of censorship in Swaziland. This is both the censorship
imposed by King Mswati and self-censorship. There are also high levels of
self-censorship around the king and the queen mother, since editors, aware of
threats made in the past by the king, do not want to get themselves into
trouble. There is a rule, generally accepted among journalists in all media
houses, that you don't criticise him.
There are serious concerns about human
rights generally and media freedom in particular in Swaziland. The U.S. State
Department in its review of human rights in Swaziland for 2009 reported: "The
constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but the king may
waive these rights at his discretion, and the government restricted these
rights during the year. Although no law bans criticism of the monarchy, the
prime minister and other officials warned journalists that publishing such
criticism could be construed as an act of sedition or treason, and media
organizations were threatened with closure for criticizing the monarchy."
As if to illustrate this point, last month,
King Mswati's elder brother, Prince Mahlaba, declared
in a public conference that "journalists who continue to write bad things about
the country will die." However, as Times
of Swaziland columnist Vusi Sibisi pointed out in an August 4 column: "Contrary to
popular opinion within government, the media is not a lapdog to sing praises of
the political establishment. The media have a far important and crucial role of
ensuring transparency and public accountability instead of singing praises
whatever the size of the carrot government dangles to journalists or the threat
of the stick it wields to drive the fear of God into scribes."
Rooney is a former associate professor in journalism and mass communication at
the University of Swaziland. He blogs at Swazi Media Commentary.