The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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Feature - Reining in the private press

[SWAZILAND] Cameraman.
The Swazi media increasingly favours "soft" news (IRIN)

The glamour seems to have gone from being a journalist in Swaziland, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy, thanks in part to proposed new laws intended to limit media ownership and penalise reporters that offend the royal establishment.

"Only a handful of students taking university journalism courses want to specialise in the print media," University of Swaziland lecturer Maxwell Mtembu told a meeting of the Swaziland chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) this week. "They don't see much future in the local press."

Veteran Swaziland editors complain that aspiring reporters do not want to face the stiff fines and jail terms that government is proposing for journalists who run afoul of new information protection laws, and prefer "soft news" stories free of political content. They show little ambition to do investigative journalism.

"Soft" news is the specialty of the government-owned electronic media, Swazi-TV and the national radio stations under the Swaziland Broadcast and Information Service. Swazi-TV's palace correspondent, Quawe Mamba, has begun a satellite station, Channel Swazi, that critics charge is little more than propaganda.

Mamba, who has travelled with King Mswati III for 10 years to document royal trips overseas, has been described as "an electronic umbongi (praise singer)". His reports, carried also on government television, are typified by his recent description of Mswati as "the master of all he surveys".

"Government does not understand the role of an independent media. In a monarchy, commoners are not permitted to question, much less criticise, the royal rulers. Either you're a lackey or an assassin in their view," one editor told IRIN on condition of anonymity.

Press freedoms are mentioned in a new draft constitution, but no date has been set for its ratification. However, of more immediate concern to journalists is the final draft of a media policy assembled by the Ministry of Information.

The draft, and a law announced by the Ministry of Justice that will impose a fine double an average reporter's annual salary if a journalist does not reveal his or her sources for leaked government information, takes aim at the country's independent press. The main target, analysts suggest, is the Times of Swaziland.

The Times, first published in 1897, is not only the kingdom's oldest newspaper, but the only major news medium free of government control or ownership. The Swazi Observer, the country's second daily, is owned by the royal conglomerate Tibiyo TakaNgwane, and has among its columnists one of Mswati's palace advisors. The Observer, which has not earned a profit since its founding in 1981, does not do investigative stories involving the royal government.

The Times has infuriated the government, most recently with exposés on questionable spending for this month's Commonwealth Heads of State SMART Partnership Summit. It also incurred the royal wrath in 1995 when it published the names of Mswati's brothers and other royal officials who helped drive the government bank into insolvency by refusing to repay loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The newspaper has also covered the activities of pro-democracy groups, labour federations and banned political parties. The government's media policy would force the Times' owner, a foreign national, to sell the newspaper and its sister publications to locals.

Foreigners would be restricted to 30 percent ownership of a Swazi media house, according to the media policy. Because of the limited profit to be realised in Swaziland's small media market, it is unlikely that foreign investors would be interested in minority ownership of a newspaper where they could not exercise management or editorial control, media analysts said.

The government does not restrict foreign ownership in any other industry or area of investment.

The media policy would also give the government a veto over the establishment of any new publication. In what is the policy's most unique feature, the information ministry would only grant operating licenses to start-up publications that could prove to the ministry's satisfaction that they will earn a profit.

"Whether a newspaper earns money is the concern of its investors, not government. It should be like any other business, and be allowed to fail," Times editor Martin Dlamini said.

Although in his early 30s, Dlamini is one of Swaziland's senior journalists. Most newsrooms are staffed by young, inexperienced reporters unguided by seasoned journalists, and the results are a lowering of standards, according to a MISA report released this week.

"[Readers] just look at the byline, and tell themselves that the writer is young and therefore cannot be taken seriously," said Comfort Mabuza, the Swaziland national director of MISA.

Swaziland's media freedoms have become an issue for international press groups. King Mswati's effigy was again paraded through the streets of Paris in May by the watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontiers, which included the Swazi king among the world's top 10 abusers of press freedom.

Defenders of Swazi royalty were angered by the display. "This is typical of the disrespect these boys and girls in the press show the king. We know the press wants to overthrow our king, and it is our duty to stop them," a palace source told IRIN.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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