Swazi Minister of Information Abednego Ntshangase this week announced a new censorship policy for the state-owned electronic media, raising concerns about the validity of a bill of rights promised in an upcoming palace-written constitution.
"The national television and radio stations are not going to cover anything that has a negative bearing on government," Ntshangase told MPs at his first appearance before the House of Assembly. King Mswati III, who personally appoints all cabinet ministers, gave Ntshangase the information portfolio last week.
The minister said individuals who were not supportive of government policies would not be allowed to broadcast, or have their views disseminated.
"This is not to say that issues some describe as controversial will be untold. Statements on these will be released by the prime minister’s office," Ntshangase told MPs.
Ntshangase also said state-owned media would no longer report on the debate surrounding the controversial purchase of a US $72 million luxury jet for Mswati.
Rights groups, diplomats and developmental NGOs have condemned the purchase of the aircraft as a wasteful misdirection of scare government resources at a time when one third of Swazis are without food.
"In fact, we are worried that stories like the food shortage will be censored from the national news, because it showed government was unprepared, and it raised questions about government land policy. Government holds a monopoly on radio and TV in the kingdom, so if the news is censored, most people will be uninformed about matters that affect their lives," said a source at the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
Observers told IRIN it was likely that journalists would protest the latest restrictions.
Former Swazi-TV news director, Sabelo Masuku, recently refused to hand over footage of a protest march conducted by teachers, which the cabinet wished to scrutinise, and was fired.
"Government can fire the news departments whenever there is a disagreement, but eventually they will run out of people," said Masuku. He noted that the most talented Swazi broadcast journalists leave the country for more lucrative media work in South Africa and elsewhere.
President of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, Phineas Magagula, told IRIN the information minister's control of news content illustrated the lack of democracy in the country.
However, media observers in Swaziland said the management of news by the government through its electronic media monopoly was not new.
They pointed out that since the mid-1990s, secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, Jan Sithole, had been periodically banned from the airwaves after leading workers on the first national strike demanding political reform.
"There is also nothing new about the minister's habit of muzzling the press," said Magagula, whose teachers union is part of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance that has also been banned from news coverage. "When he [Nthsangase] was foreign minister, he blocked reporters from asking certain questions of the king at press conferences."
In 2001 a royal decree made it a crime to criticise any government official, in or out of the media. Foreign envoys stationed in Swaziland and international human rights groups protested, and the International Labour Organisation threatened to press for economic sanctions if the decree, which also criminalised some labour union activities, was permitted to stand. After one month, King Mswati rescinded the law.
A Media Council Bill, described by MISA as draconian, is awaiting action by parliament. It calls for the licensing of journalists, who would in effect be put on trial by a government-appointed media council whenever a complaint was filed about a story. Penalties that could be imposed include jail sentences of up to five years, and fines that The Times of Swaziland calculated would equal the net annual salary of a typical reporter.
Some analysts say the government's suspicion of the media is the natural reaction of a traditional royal leadership to those who dare question its actions and motives.
"There is this instinct to jail or exile any critic or bearer of unflattering news, because they are seen as enemies or, at least, the agents of enemies," said one palace observer.