A threat by a Swaziland High Court judge to jail journalists that criticise decisions made by the law courts has hit home.
Chair of the Swaziland Editors’ Forum Mbongeni Mbingo declined to comment on the statement by Judge Mpendulo Simelane for fear of committing a contempt of court.
Mbingo had been asked by local media to comment on the jailing for two years of Bheki Makhubu, editor of the Nation magazine, and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer and writer. The pair had written articles critical of Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi and the Swaziland judiciary.
Passing sentence Judge Simelane said that publishing articles in the Nation critical of the judiciary was ‘a defiance campaign against the Courts and the administration of justice. The Courts have an obligation to discourage such conduct in the interest of the stability of our country.’
He added, ‘No one, I repeat, has a right to write scurrilous articles in the manner the Accused persons did. Such conduct destroys public confidence in the Courts, without which this country cannot function effectively. The Courts hence have to use the very ammunition of Contempt of Court in self-protection from journalists like the Accused persons.’
He added, ‘Swaziland is a sovereign state. Her laws and constitutional structures must be respected. It is the fundamental responsibility of the Courts in this country to ensure that this is achieved through appropriately stiff sentences as a deterrent.’
Mbingo, who is chief editor of the Swazi Observer newspaper group, which is in effect owned by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, was reported by a rival newspaper, the Swazi News, saying, ‘he couldn’t comment on the judgment because doing so would probably constitute contempt of court but insisted that he was at pains, following yesterday’s events’.
The Swazi News quoted Mbingo saying the two-year sentences were ‘alarming’.
Mbingo said, ‘Bheki Makhubu is a member of the Editors’ Forum, he is a senior editor and he is highly regarded in the profession. Therefore, today has been a very sad day for all of us in the profession.
‘The sentence is alarming to us in the industry. I have been following the case as a journalist, as editor and a colleague to Bheki, but I never saw this coming. I didn’t think the sentence could be this drastic.’
He added, ‘I think we will obviously have to look at it and study it as media personnel to understand where the judge is coming from and to understand where the infringement was in order to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in the same situation.
‘More than anything it’s important for us to understand what we stand for as a profession; it’s important to understand our role in society. We need to perform our role in society as respectfully as we can and also as unafraid as possible.’
Meanwhile, the Lawyers for Human Rights in Swaziland (LHRS) expressed ‘shock and disbelief’ at the jailing of the two journalists.
Secretary of the LHRS Sipho Gumedze said, ‘The tone that was used by the court was very unfortunate. Somewhere within the judgment, the court said it wanted to send a clear message to all journalists in Swaziland. As an association, we have serious misgivings about that.
‘The use of that tone was unwarranted.
‘The court was supposed to confine itself to the matter at hand and not to be political and personal because the court’s fundamental duty is to serve justice.’
Chairman of the LHRSMaxwell Nkambule said Judge Simelane’s sentence had dashed hopes on the independence of the judiciary and the role of courts to uphold the Constitution.
‘True we saw it coming but to think the court would unashamedly disrespect the basics on the protection of rights. Such is disgusting to say the least. The court is essentially saying there is no freedom of expression and free press,’ he said.
Vincent Ncongwane, Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), said, ‘The arrest, conviction and sentence of Maseko and Makhubu is very unfortunate and has no space in the modern democratic society.
‘The federation was seriously shocked at the tone the court used when delivering the judgment, it was scaring to say the least.’
Outside of Swaziland, condemnation of the jail sentences was swift from international organisations including the US State Department, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the South Africa National Editors Forum, and Freedom House
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