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Wednesday, 31 October 2007

SWAZILAND WITHOUT THE KING

There was a strange little news report tucked away on page ten of the Times of Swaziland yesterday (30 October 2007).

It concerned a documentary film called Without The King about King Mswati III that had won the jury prize at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

According to the report, the documentary ‘is described as a portrait of a nation in transition and poised to fight for a better life.’

Well, that’s one way to describe it. Readers of this blog with long memories may recall that the Hot Docs prize was awarded in April of this year (six months ago) so why the Times suddenly thinks now is the time to bring this momentous news to the public’s attention I don’t know.

The Times is also dishonest about the film’s contents. As I wrote previously the Hot Docs Festival described the documentary like this:

Swaziland is Africa's last absolute monarchy and a nation at a dangerous crossroads. The people demand democracy and an end to starvation, while the king insists on banning political parties. The people want relief from a 43 per cent AIDS/HIV infection rate, the world's highest, while the king prices a fleet of luxury limousines. Against this backdrop of blatant inequality, we meet the royal family: Princess Sikhanyiso, a teenage rapper and eldest child; Queen LaMbikiza, a headstrong outsider and first of 12 wives; and King Mswati III, a distant figure out of touch with his home and country. Unprecedented access to the royals and villagers witnesses startling parallel rebellions. Terrorism and civil unrest are on the rise in the impoverished townships, where rebels will not be assuaged by the king's hollow constitutional offering, while inside the palace, an unlikely source of change makes her own plans and discoveries. The camera captures the birth of a nation's revolution, a struggle to reconcile First and Third World orders and a princess' burgeoning self-awareness in this most inspiring exposé.

The Times reports that King Mswati III’s Private Secretary Sam Mkhombe ‘preferred not to comment on the film when called on Friday.’

You can see a two-minute trailer for the film on You Tube here

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

PUTTING STRIKE BAN INTO CONTEXT

I have criticised the Swazi news media for their inability to put events into context. When yet another kombi crashes because its brakes fail, no reporter thinks to ask questions about the poor maintenance of public service vehicles.

So here I offer you a case study on how it can be done. This report is from the Mail and Guardian newspaper, in South Africa.

It is headlined ‘Swaziland’s constitutional crisis’ and it takes as its starting point a court decision in Swaziland last week to ban a strike by civil servants.

This decision was widely reported in the Swazi media but what they all failed to do was to tell their readers the significance of the decision.

The Mail and Guardian report reminds readers of the International Monetary Fund’s demands that Swaziland reduces the number of jobs in the civil service. The report then talks about how the court decision is ‘the latest government clampdown on civil society’ and details some of the others that have happened recently.

The report then details how the Swazi police have been mobilised to stop trade unionists meeting.

Activists are interviewed and one puts the present court decision in a historical context.

The other side of the case is then put by a senior Swazi attorney.

The report is reproduced below. You can find it online here

The Swazi government struck another blow to the labour movement this week when it won a court order to halt a national public-servants’ strike scheduled for Wednesday.

The strike was intended to demonstrate support for public-sector unions, which are in negotiations with government over work conditions in the sector and the contentious issue of retrenchments.

The Swazi government is bowing to International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands to reduce public sector expenditure, which the lending organisation insists is too high.

Musa Hhlope, an activist with the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), said the 20 000-strong public service could be reduced by 10% to 20% and this would deal a severe blow to the population. He also expressed concern that “the cuts will come at the bottom of the tree”.

This week’s court order against the strike is the latest government clampdown on civil society. Last week the security forces broke up a meeting convened by the Royal Swazi Police Service, a newly formed union for police officers, which the government refuses to register.

The SCCCO said: “These actions by the police at the instigation of government and other structures are trampling underfoot the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.


These rights are enshrined not only in the constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland, but also in the international treaties on human rights that the government has ratified.”

The leader of the Royal Swazi Police Service, Buhle Dlamini, who registered the union at the end of last year, was sacked about three months ago for forming the trade union.

He told the Mail & Guardian that he was man-handled by the police when they broke up the meeting. “I was throttled by a senior police officer,” he said. “This is the second time they have blocked a planned meeting.”

Vincent Ncongwane, the secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Labour, also criticised the rough way in which police dispersed the gathering. He argued there was no threat that the meeting, which took place on church premises, would have become unruly.

Another activist, who refused to be identified, said that the crackdowns were underpinned by a 1973 royal decree requiring police permission for meetings that might be deemed to be of a political nature, but that this violated the spirit of the constitution. “There is a freedom of assembly [in the new constitution] unless there is fear that peace and order might be breached,” the activist said.

Dlamini also questioned why it had taken six months for the court to deliver a judgement on the union’s urgent application challenging the government order preventing its registration. “It doesn’t matter what the king says, what matters is what the constitution says,” Dlamini said.

Hlophe speculated that the delay was “indicative of either conspiracy or incompetence, neither of which is exactly desirable in a judiciary”. He said: “There are certain judges who have shown extreme moral courage and probity in the face of almost overwhelming political and cultural pressure from the government, but it is by no means all of them.”

However, a senior Swazi attorney, who preferred to remain anonymous, defended the courts: “The courts are pretty independent. They will not shirk from hearing any matter. Perhaps the delay has been caused by an administrative error.” He said that, as a rule, “political cases are not normally taken as urgent”.

Such crackdowns have become increasingly frequent in Swaziland. An international youth meeting, with participants from the Southern African Youth Movement, Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands, that was scheduled for October 10 was cancelled when the government learned that Jan Sithole, the secretary general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, was to address the group.

Hlophe said the government made it clear to the organisers of the meeting that if it was to go ahead they had to apologise for not inviting government officials, allow police officers to monitor and record the proceedings and drop Sithole as a guest speaker.

Government spokesperson Percy Simelane dismissed this as a lie and an attempt by some within civil society to “blacklist” the government.

He maintained the government did nothing to prevent the meeting from being held.

He argued that when there was a meeting with participants from abroad the “cabinet has to know” and “no one in government knew of this”. He declined to comment on the police union case as it was “sub judice” and “only the courts can decide” on such an issue. Simelane did, however, explain why the meeting had been disrupted in the first place.

He said the conveners of the meeting had not followed procedure. “There are certain times that you have to inform the police for security reasons.” The fact that those gathered were police officers was immaterial as “you never know what might happen”.

Monday, 29 October 2007

CRIME SCARE AT THE ‘OBSERVER’

Have the good folk at the Swazi Observer taken leave of their senses?

If the adverts (see above) they have been running about crime lately are anything to go by the barricades are about to go up at the newspaper’s offices and guns are being distributed to all staff.

An exaggeration? Maybe. But not as exaggerated as the adverts.

The adverts in the Observer want us to believe that ‘Violent criminals have taken over our homes, families and businesses with impunity.’ Really? And where is the evidence for this? Police statistics on crime suggest that all criminal activity remains more or less steady with neither large increases nor large decreases in crime in Swaziland.

But that doesn’t matter to the Observer which implores, ‘Join us to crackdown on all sorts of criminal activity and those who shelter thugs.’

It then asks readers to write in ‘to tell us your story of crime and how you survived.’ Then it wants to know, ‘Should police shoot to kill?’

The advert appeared on 16 October 2007 and promised to publish responses from readers the following Friday. On that day there was only one reader’s letter and even that was unsigned.

Not much of a response to a major campaign to crackdown on criminals.

Undeterred the following Monday they tried again. This time there were five SMS messages and two letters. None of these had the full name of the senders, so we can’t be sure that they are genuine.

One SMS was completely bonkers, ‘Police please kill everyone from aspiring, attempting, suspect, allegedly, conflicts of armed robbery.’ I have copied out the SMS in full. I don’t understand it. Do you?

Is this the best the Observer can do in its campaign? Well, actually yes. The following day they put the advert in again and promised more readers’ responses the next Friday (26 October 2007). But came the day, there were none. It couldn’t have been that they were left out because there wasn’t enough space. News must have been slow that day. In the same day’s edition a whole page was given over to the Observer’s new office in Manzini and another page went to a bakery that is selling ‘healthy’ bread.

Why haven’t people responded to the sensationalism of the Observer? There must be at least two parts to the answer. The first is that readers are far more sensible than the Observer gives them credit for. The second is (I suspect) very few people read the paper and those that do, don’t take it at all seriously.

The journalists at the Observer might like to have a look at Article 18 of the Swaziland National Association of Journalist’s Code of Ethics. It talks about sensationalism and headlines. ‘Newspaper headlines shall be fully warranted by contents of the articles they announce.’ To this we might add ‘adverts for newspaper campaigns should be fully warranted by the facts’.

Friday, 26 October 2007

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FIGHT

The Times of Swaziland is fighting the kingdom’s government to find out how much it cost the taxpayer to send the Prime Minister on an all expenses trip to the Bahamas.

The Prime Minister went on a trip to receive an award. But before he left nobody, not even the PM himself, knew what the award was for.

So, off the PM went with his wife for a luxury holiday. Well, we assume it was a luxury, no-expenses-spared, trip because he is the PM after all. But the problem is, as the Times explained in an editorial on Tuesday (23 October 2007), we cannot be told how much the trip cost because this information is ‘classified’.

This is not the only setback the Times has had in its pursuit of information on behalf of its readers.

The Times editorial explains, ‘For months now we have been trying, without success, to get the list of winners for government tenders.

‘The tender board has always been very cooperative in doing the hard part, that of providing us with the tender openings, inclusive of prices. But when it comes to giving us only one company name, suddenly everybody is too engaged to attend to us.

‘Why? Why would the board want us to believe that this is a highly-guarded secret?’

The answer is obvious, of course. Swaziland is not a democracy and those in ruling positions can do what they like. That’s why the PM goes half way across the world to the Bahamas to collect an award he knew nothing about. And he does this at the Swazi taxpayers’ expense because he knows he can get away with it.

It’s the same with the tenders. We know that corruption is rife in Swaziland and it is estimated that it is costing ordinary honest Swazi people E40 million (about 6 million US dollars) each and every month.

So will we ever be able to find out what the Swazi Government is spending the Swazi people’s money on?

Earlier this year Parliament issued a draft bill on freedom of information. The first objective of this bill is to ‘Encourage a culture of openness, transparency and accountability in public bodies by providing for access to information held by these bodies in order to enable every citizen to fully exercise and protect their constitutional right of freedom of expression.’

If such a bill was in place now and people in government respected the bill, the Times could get its information and all of us would be able to find out a lot more about where the money government is entrusted with by the Swazi people is going.

But, like the Swaziland Constitution (which allows freedom of assembly but bans political parties or public meetings unless the local chief agrees) even if the Freedom of Information bill becomes law, the ruling elite will simply ignore it and the ordinary Swazi can go whistle for the information.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

WILL CONSTITUTION PROTECT ‘TIMES’?

Is the Times of Swaziland looking for a fight with the House of Assembly?

Hot on the heels of the acquittal on contempt of Parliament charges laid on the Times Sunday editor, comes another rip roaring comment column.

This time it is Vusi Sibisi, writing in the Times on Tuesday (23 October 2007).

He was reacting to the acquittal of Mbongeni Mbingo, who had written a column in his newspaper criticizing the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Prince Guduza.

Here’s what Sibisi had to say on the matter, ‘The posture once again raises the question of the wisdom of electing a prince to lead the House of Assembly, given that he is a member of the ruling family. These are all the reasons – coupled with the fact that they are not elected but appointed to Parliament – why a member of the royal family should never have been elected to lead the House of Assembly.’

Sibisi also calls members of the house of assembly ‘sycophants’, ‘nauseatingly eager to please the powers that be’ and ‘knee bending’.

This isn’t too different from the words used by Mbongeni Mbingo in his own article. He said, ‘Prince Guduza must be ashamed of himself’, and called MPs ‘foolish’. Mbingo also said the prince ‘is confirming people’s feelings that because of his royalty status, he is therefore to safeguard that interest and not that of the people.’

Mbingo was taken before a House of Assembly Select Committee on a charge of contempt. He was acquitted by the committee because, the committee said, he was expressing a personal opinion and he was protected by the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression.

Although the committee felt obliged to set Mbingo free, it did put the boot into the media more generally by recommending that all journalists who report on Parliament should be accredited (presumably by Parliament itself) and calling for the anti-democratic Media Council Bill to be resurrected.

We must wait and see if Sibisi’s article attracts the attention of a House of Assembly Select Committee. If journalists truly are protected by the Constitution, we should expect a deafening silence on the matter.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

'STARVING' SWAZIS EAT WEEDS

Many people in Swaziland are so hungry that they have to eat weeds to survive.

This is another news report you won’t have read in the Swazi media.

As I wrote before if you really want to know what is going on in the kingdom of Swaziland don’t bother with the local media.

The following news report was released by the IRIN and sent across the world. You can read the full report here

While aid agencies and the Swazi government scramble to keep a major catastrophe at bay, the mounting food crisis means more and more Swazis can only cope by drastically scaling down food intake and scouring the fields for edible weeds.

About 40 percent of Swaziland's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages. For most, coping with the food scarcity means cutting back on depleted consumption, already endangering the health of thousands according to Comparisons of Coping Mechanisms 2006/2007, a recently released joint annual study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP).

‘Over 50 percent of adults are eating less. Over 60 percent are limiting or reducing meal portions. Over 30 percent of the population is skipping meals entirely,’ the report said. ‘Those not eating for an entire day or consuming a green [wild] crop, grew - over 30 percent of Swazis are consuming more than the usual amount of wild foods.’

Samantha Simelane, a widow with two daughters, is one of them, ‘The children cry that their bellies are hurting them; I feel so sorry for them," she said. "I am famished myself, so I feel weak most times, but I tell my children if we eat what little we have instead of stretching it out, we will surely starve at some point.’

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

REPORTERS, PLEASE OPEN YOUR EYES

I often wonder whether journalists in Swaziland ever read the newspapers that they write for.

They don’t seem to have any understanding of what’s going on around them.

There was a perfect example of what I mean in yesterday’s Times of Swaziland (22 October 2007).

In a report headlined ‘Preserving culture key to political stability’ the Times reported the Swaziland Prime Minister Absalom Themba Dlamini saying that ‘the peace and tranquillity the country was enjoying’ was as a result of Swazi culture.

What ‘peace’ and what ‘tranquillity’?

The Times went on to report the Prime Minister saying that Swaziland had been able to solve some of its social problems by invoking cultural practices.

I’m not surprised that the Prime Minister said such nonsense about peace and tranquillity, because he is meant to be the leader of the country and to admit that the kingdom is on its knees (to quote Derek von Wissell) would be to admit to his own and his government’s failure.

But why does the Times let him get away with it?

Take a look at the headlines on other pages of the same edition of the Times and see if this seems like a kingdom in peace and tranquillity.

‘Taxi driver robbed, tied to tree’: Page 2.
‘Bodies pile up at Hlathikhula Hospital’: Page 3.
‘Fight divides family’: Page 4
‘Angry residents want Prince Tikhntele out’: Page 5
‘Zionist stabs church member to death’: Page 5.
‘Solider who whipped sons arrested’: Page 7.
‘Stray lunatics sleep in private wards’: Page 8.
‘Retrenchments hurt savings societies’: Page 10.
‘Three taxi men arrested for poaching at Mkhaya’: Page 12.
‘Two arrested after shooting at Asian’s gate’: Page 13.
‘Asians were assaulted, robbed four suits’: Page 13.
‘Parents warned: Violent homes breeding violent children’: Page 23.
‘Drugs will crush your dreams, St Mark’s pupils warned’: Page 23.
‘Unemployment rate makes Swazis leave for SA’: Page 23.
‘E900 000 dagga destroyed at Herefords’: Page 26.


Maybe the most telling headline of all was this one that was on a comment piece by MP Mfomfo Nkhambule in which he criticised the Prime Minister who had said the way to deal with the HIV AIDS crisis was to pray to God.

‘The Titanic is sinking. Those in authority have run out of ideas’: Page 33.

Monday, 22 October 2007

READ ALL ABOUT KING MSWATI III

In Swaziland it is almost impossible to turn on the television news or listen in to a radio bulletin without hearing some ‘news’ about King Mswati III.

I stopped listening to the English language service of Radio Swaziland a long time ago because it seemed to me that every news bulletin was headed by the announcer saying, ‘His Majesty King Mswati III’. This was then followed by a report on some mundane event in the day of the king’s life. As often as not it was about some official function or other he had attended. Or some foreign dignitary who was on a trip to Swaziland had paid a courtesy call on the king.

The newspapers are not much better in this regard. It was once said that it was the policy of the Swazi Observer to run a story about the king on the front page every day, no matter what. The Observer doesn’t do that now but it does publish more pictures of the king than any other newspaper in Swaziland.

There is often no ‘news’ value in the report. Every time the king flies out of the kingdom (and he does it a lot) we get at least a page of pictures of people lined up at the airport to send him on his way. Then when he returns we get it all over again.

I was reminded of this coverage this week when quite by accident I stumbled across an entire website devoted to King Mswati III.

I can’t tell you much about it because the author of the site is the shy type and hasn’t given any details about him or herself. The site is mainly a collection of news articles about the king. Although the site has only been up since the end of September 2007, there are already more than fifty (50) items on it.

So, if you can’t get enough of the king from the Swazi media go visit ‘King Mswati here

Friday, 19 October 2007

SWAZILAND IN GOVERNANCE DENIAL

Why is the Swaziland Government Press Secretary Percy Simelane in denial about the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and its recent report that Swaziland falls below Zimbabwe in an analysis of good governance in sub-Saharan Africa?

And why is the Times of Swaziland allowing him to get away with claiming that Mo Ibrahim is some kind of fly by night organisation that doesn’t do its homework.

For those new to this story, Simelane was reported in the Times yesterday (18 October 2007) saying the Mo Ibrahim Foundation ‘never conducted a study of the country’.

The Times goes on to report, ‘Simelane said their investigations had revealed that the foundation had never conducted a single study on the country but merely depended upon information supplied to it by various individuals.’

Then, in what I can only describe as a racial slur, the Times reports the Press Secretary saying, ‘We also discovered that the person behind the organisation (Mo Ibrahim) is a Sudanese national.’

These are the facts that the Times wants to ignore. Mo Ibrahim is a world respected foundation whose supporters include Nelson Mandela; Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General; President Bill Clinton, former US President and José Barroso, president, European Commission among others.

So, I’m afraid Simelane has got it horribly wrong. It would have taken the Times of Swaziland five minutes to check to see whether he was telling the truth about how Mo Ibrahim did its research (that’s how long it took me).

Mo Ibrahim breaks down its research into countries into five categories. They are Safety and Security; Rule of Law, Transparency and Corruption; Participation and Human Rights; Sustainable Economic Development and Human Development.

To give you an example of how thorough the foundation is, Mo Ibrahim then breaks down the ‘human development’ category into three sub-sections: national poverty results, health outcomes, and educational opportunity.

Let me illustrate how one part of ‘human development’, the analysis of health outcomes, is done. Eleven sources of information are used, as follows:

1. Life expectancy at birth, expressed in years, collected by the WDI, based on various sources, including census reports and data from national statistical offices and the UN Population Division’s World Population Prospects.

2. Infant mortality per 1000 live births, based on WDI estimates of data from the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and World Bank sources.

3. Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births. Data are from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Indicators, which draws on data from WHO and UNICEF.

4. Undernourishment (percentage of the population whose food intake is below the minimum dietary energy requirements), as determined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and compiled in the WDI.

5. Percentage of children (aged 12-23 months) immunized against measles, according to the WHO and UNICEF, as reported in the WDI.

6. Percentage of children (aged 12-23 months) immunized against diptheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus (DPT), according to the WHO and UNICEF, as reported in the WDI.

7. Percentage of people (aged 15-49 years) living with HIV, from the MDG Indicators.

8. Estimated number of new TB cases (incidence) per 100,000 people, from the WHO’s Global Tuberculosis Control Report, as reported in the WDI.

9. Access to qualified physicians: density of physicians per 1000 people, from the WHO.

10. Access to trained nurses: density of nurses per 1000 people, from the WHO.

11. Percentage of the population with access to potable water, from the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation.

Remember that these 11 sources of information make up one third of one fifth of the overall analysis of Swaziland. It is difficult to see how more thorough the foundation could be in collecting its information.

Simelane and the Times can rubbish the Mo Ibrahim Foundation all they want. But suggesting the foundation is dishonest simply won’t wash. Simelane and the Times are the dishonest ones.

Governance in Swaziland is appalling. It’s a fact and unless we all recognise this and mobilise to fight it nothing will change.

The Times reports Simelane saying that ‘the government was still going to issue a comprehensive statement in response to the “findings” attributed to the organisation.’

Let’s hope that next time this ‘comprehensive’ statement contains some truth. The statement from Simelane as published in the Times does not.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

RAW DEAL FOR SWAZI CHILDREN

Children get a raw deal in the Swazi Press, where in some cases the reporting of children does not uphold the rights of vulnerable children and the reporting of victimised children further victimises those children.

My own recently published research on this subject identifies large shortcomings in the way Swazi newspapers report on children. This is happening even though journalists themselves have agreed a code of conduct in the ethical reporting of children.

Within Swaziland the main journalists’ organisation the Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) created a code of ethics for journalists in the kingdom to follow. This code includes Article 16, specifically dealing with the reporting of children.

My research found ten items over an eight week period that appeared to have breached Article 16. Here to give a flavour of the articles is one of them.


One newspaper reports that a 14-year-old girl is selling herself for sex to get pocket money because her mother will not provide her with pants. She is not identified by name (her mother is described as a maid and the location in which she works is given). The girl, who by any standards must be considered to be in a vulnerable position, is interviewed by the paper (it is not stated but it seems as if she was not interviewed with an adult present). The words used to describe the girl sexualise her. ‘Dressed in her black stockings complemented with an above the knee mini skirt, the girl stood out from the rest of her friends as someone who has been “enlightened” about life more than anything’.



You can find a summary of this research in the latest edition Issue 10 (September to December 2007) of Khulumani, the newsletter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Swaziland chapter.


The Khulumani article is based on a full research report called Suffer The Children – Reporting of Minors by the Swazi Press. I published in Lwati: A Journal of Contemporary Research (Swaziland), Vol 4, June 2007. For subscription details for the journal, contact its editor Dr Francis Mogu at lwatijo@yahoo.com

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

SWAZI REPORTERS CAN'T EXPLAIN

A workshop held recently in Matsapha gave us some interesting insights into the abilities of Swaziland’s journalists. It also raised a question about whether the kingdom’s newspapers were really concerned with informing people about what is going on around them or simply in making profits for their owners.

The Weekend Observer (13 October 2007) reported its own news editor Ackel Zwane telling the workshop, ‘journalists, whatever their persuasions, always toed the line of the media house owners, whom in most cases, were pursuing profits so they could honour the payroll among other reasons.’

Zwane was speaking at a workshop about how the media reported on climate change in Swaziland.

According to the Weekend Observer, participants at the workshop, who were mostly people who worked in the environmental sector, wanted to know why the Swaziland press and electronic media persistently pursued sleazy and sensational stories. They felt that the Swazi media did not properly cover environmental issues.

In his response Zwane (unintentionally, I suspect) revealed a major weakness of Swazi journalists: they don’t know how to act on their own initiative.

The Weekend Observer reports him saying, ‘But I must say that the “green people” [environmental activists] should know that we cannot be their ambassadors. If they give us press releases that are packed with environmentally friendly terms, we will not be able to decipher them for the man in the street.

‘We are trained to write and not explain the unexplainable.’

In that last statement, (‘We are trained to write and not explain the unexplainable.’) Zwane reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the journalist. Explaining things to people is EXACTLY what journalists should do. I suspect what Zwane is really saying is that he and the people he works with at the newspaper are not able to explain things because they themselves do not understand them. To which a reader is entitled to say, ‘get me a journalist who can.’

If journalists don’t know something, they should find out. Knowing how to find things out and using initiative is as important to journalists as being able to write down and report accurately the words someone has spoken.

Zwane in his response to the workshop also gave a valuable insight into how newspaper journalists in Swaziland actually work.

The Weekend Observer reported him saying that local journalists had to cover almost anything in a bid to meet a quota of a certain number of stories each month that was imposed upon them by media owners. This meant they could not ‘afford the luxury to specialise’ in certain topics, such as the environment.

The point Zwane makes about owners’ attitudes to newspapers in Swaziland is one that deserves a workshop of its own.

We know that in theory at least newspapers should inform people about what is going on around them, explain the significance of the events to them, and give readers the space to debate matters of interest and importance to them. What Zwane seems to be telling us is that none of this matters as long as the owners make profits. Now is the time for the owners to come forward and explain their point of view to us.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

FOREIGN MEDIA GIVE FULL PICTURE

I have found during the three years I have lived in Swaziland that if I want to really know what’s going on in the kingdom, I should not bother with the Swazi media.

I find you get a much clearer and truer picture of what’s happening here from the foreign press and international agencies.

This is sometimes because Swaziland is not a democracy and some information is deliberately withheld from the people (think of the reports about King Mswati III’s huge wealth that appeared in August 2007 in overseas’ media but never saw the light of day in Swaziland as an example).

Another reason why we get a raw deal from the Swaziland media is because they aren’t very good.

I was reminded of this again last week when I saw a report about the drought we are suffering in the kingdom. The Swazi media has been carrying lots of reports about the kingdom’s capital Mbabane going on water rationing and very occasionally there is something about how people in rural areas are suffering. But none of the news media have identified the very real prospect of economic collapse in the kingdom caused by the drought.

It has taken the foreign media to alert us to the possibility that overseas’ investors will pull out of Swaziland if the water supplies do not improve.

The international agency, IRIN, reported a Swaziland Parliamentary Select Committee that met in September 2007 being warned by several businesses that if the government failed to deliver on the promise of adequate water to run their operations, they would pull out of the country.

This information was freely available to journalists, but I have seen no reference to it in the Swazi media.

A report of the Select Committee said that in Nhlangano, provincial capital of the southern Shiselweni Region, Asian-owned garment factories employ over 5,000 Swazi whereas five years ago there was not a single manufacturing job in the area.

IRIN reported the Select Committee saying, ‘Unless an alternative water supply is sourced from the Mkhondvo River [which bends across the southern third of the country], as promised many years ago [factory owners] said they would have no alternative but to relocate to Lesotho, where there is a huge supply of water.’

One industrialist told the Select Committee that government gave little thought to providing for the water, electricity and waste-disposal needs of industry. ‘They just built the factory shells and roads, and invited us to move in,’ the IRIN report said.

The consequences of the drought could bring Swaziland’s already failing economy tumbling to its knees and this information was freely available to the Swazi media. Why then did the story not appear?

I think that there are three possible explanations. The first is that the Swazi media did see the report but chose not to report it, since government incompetence is being blamed for the crisis. The second possible explanation is that reporters missed the story because they were busy doing something else (fretting over the Miss Swaziland beauty contest if the acres of news pages devoted to that subject is anything to go by.)

The third explanation? They did see the report but didn’t understand its significance.

Participants at a recent workshop that looked at how the media covered environmental issues concluded that the Swaziland media was only interested in sleazy and sensational stories. When you look at what the newspapers choose to cover and when they miss a story as important as this one, it is hard not to agree with them.

Monday, 15 October 2007

SWAZI CONSTITUTION IS USELESS

From time to time a report appears in the newspapers that proves beyond doubt that Swaziland is not a democracy and that the new Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

One such report appeared in both the Weekend Observer and the Swazi News this week (13 October 2007).

The report stated that the High Court had granted chief Tikhontele Dlamini of Lomshiyo area an order stopping his headman from holding a community meeting. The chief told the High Court that he was the only one with the right to call meetings, as chief of the area, and if anyone else called meetings it would undermine his powers and rights as chief.

The High Court granted the order banning the meeting even though the Swaziland Constitution (section 24) allows any person the ‘freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons)’.

So there you have it: anyone can hold and express an opinion – but only if their chief agrees with it.

I was disappointed with both newspapers that ran the court report because neither of them saw the wider implication of the decision. Both newspapers simply wrote the news story as a report of an event that had taken place in court without putting it into a wider context.

This is the usual way of reporting in Swaziland. To reporters anything that happens in the kingdom happens in isolation. In their world one event is not connected to any other. To give a simple example: hardly a day goes by without there being reports in the papers about traffic accidents. Often (but not always) these accidents include kombis or buses. Sometimes the newspapers go so far as to identify the causes of the accidents as bad driving or poor maintenance of vehicles used to carry the public.

The fact that there are a number of such stories about traffic accidents caused by poorly maintained vehicles tells us that there is a much bigger news story here that goes beyond simply recording the event of a traffic accident.

I would say that there is a very serious issue about road safety in Swaziland that isn’t being reported. Here are a few questions journalists could ask: why are the vehicles badly maintained?, how many unsafe vehicles are there on our roads in any one day?; why don’t transport operators themselves seem to be interested in safety?, how much money is being made by operators willing to run kombis and buses that are death traps?

Although the job of journalists is to write facts and tell readers what is going on it is also their job to explain to people why things happen. In the case of the High Court judgement the journalist got the first part right but failed badly on the second.

THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?

The Swazi News sports pages gossip column had a revealing item this week (13 October 2007).

It is said one editor (presumably not of the Swazi News) can be seen regularly at a Mbabane bar drinking Castle lager while making corrections to his newspapers.

As is the way with Swazi newspapers, the editor is not named, nor is the source of the story, so we cannot assume the story to be true.

But if it is true, do we have a ‘chicken or the egg’ situation here? Are the newspapers in Swaziland so bad because the editor is a bit pickled when he is editing them? Or does he get a bit pickled because the newspapers are so bad and that’s the only way he can face them?

Friday, 12 October 2007

DANGER: SWAZI GOVERNMENT CENSORS

Swaziland’s government wants to choose which journalists should be allowed to cover proceedings in Parliament and which should not.

The move follows criticism that the editor of the Times Sunday was ignorant of Parliamentary procedures.

The decision to require journalists who cover Parliament to be accredited was announced as part of a House of Assembly Select Committee report into the behaviour of Mbongeni Mbingo.

Mbingo was charged with contempt of parliament following an article criticising the House Speaker that Mbingo wrote in the Times Sunday newspaper.

In its report published this week the Select Committee found Mbingo not guilty of contempt of Parliament and in an unprecedented move, confirmed his right to freedom of speech.

But the committee found that Mbingo lacked basic understanding of Parliamentary practice and procedure.

The committee also said he had failed to observe journalism ethics of objectivity and accuracy.

The committee further recommended that journalists should attend workshops on the importance of ethics in journalism.

We should applaud the committee for seeing sense in dismissing charges of contempt against Mbingo and regular readers of this blog will know that the Swazi media continually fails to uphold journalism ethics, so it is difficult to argue against the committee’s recommendation for a workshop.

We should, however, be suspicious of the motives behind accreditation of journalists who cover Parliament. What accreditation means is that only some journalists will be allowed to observe and report on what goes on in Parliament. The Swazi government (or its representatives) will decide who is and who is not allowed into Parliament.

It also means they can decide to withdraw accreditation from anyone whose reporting upsets them. We should remember that the Select Committee sat and judged Mbingo because MPs were angry about what he had written. If accreditation had been in place the angry MPs could have found it easier to punish him. They simply had to remove his accreditation and he could no longer do his job.

It could also mean that journalists who cover Parliament would be intimidated against reporting critical stories for fear of losing accreditation and maybe their jobs as a result.

The decision by the Select Committee comes after it accused Mbingo of being ignorant of Parliamentary procedures. Does it mean that now journalists will need to take a test set by the government before they are allowed to report on Parliament?

The committee said mechanisms to accredit journalists should be put in place within eight weeks. There is still time to mount a protest to get the decision overturned.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

GOSSIP, NOT FACTS IN 'OBSERVER'

The ongoing saga over the 100 dumped foetuses took a new twist in the Swazi Observer yesterday (10 October 2007) when the newspaper claimed that a church in Logoba was linked to the find.

The report highlights a major shortcoming in Swazi journalism: reporters don’t bother to give facts to support their stories.

The report headlined ‘Church Linked To Foetuses’ is worth looking at in its entirety.

It reads,

‘Speculation is rife among Logoba residents that a certain church is linked to the foetuses that were recently found dumped at a swamp.

‘A resident who preferred to remain anonymous said many girls had been flocking to the church in the afternoon hours, purportedly for counselling. “The church accommodates junior pastors in its premises, who stay there for the whole day hence the frequent visits by the girls. Some of the girls claim to be members of the church choir, and visit the church till the evening hours.

‘“We suspect it is during such visits that the girls engage in sexual activities with the pastors,” he remarked. The Swazi Observer visited the church yesterday, but found it deserted.

‘Suspicious residents said the pastors vanished after the discovery of the foetuses, two weeks ago.’

It is hard to find a single fact in the whole story. To begin with the church is not named and the resident who gives the newspaper the information is anonymous.

The headline ‘Church Linked To Foetuses’ is incorrect because nowhere in the story is the link made. We are told that some unnamed person is suspicious that girls may be having sex at the church, but that is a long way from proving that girls had sex, then became pregnant and later had abortions.

The first paragraph begins, ‘Speculation is rife...’ But even this is not supported by evidence. All we are given is one unnamed person’s speculation. The reporter didn’t manage to get even one other person to share the anonymous source’s ‘speculation’.

The unnamed resident then says that girls had been flocking to the church for counselling and / or choir practice. On the face of it they seem perfectly reasonable reasons for visiting the church. What proof does the reporter offer that they weren’t at choir practice or receiving counselling?

The resident says ‘We suspect it is during such visits that the girls engage in sexual activity.’ Again, not a shred of evidence is given to support this assertion. Why didn’t the reporter make the effort to find the girls and talk to them? The reporter made a visit to the church and found it closed but then seems to have made no further effort to put the accusations to the church or the pastors.

The Swazi Observer has told its readers that the pastors at the church are guilty but it hasn’t given one piece of evidence to prove this.

The Observer has stopped being a newspaper that reports on facts; instead it has become the carrier of gossip. Maybe some people in Logaba are saying the church is involved in the abortions, but the newspaper hasn’t proved a thing. It is no more trustworthy than the gossipy people you find in bars or coffee shops who like to say bad things about their neighbours.

Article one of the Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) Code of Conduct states that the duty of every journalist is to write and report, adhere to and faithfully defend the truth. It goes on to state that a journalist should make adequate inquiries and do cross checking of facts in order to provide the public with unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive information.

Getting things right is important because readers must feel that they can trust their newspapers (or other news media). The main way they do this by having confidence that the reports and articles in the newspapers are accurate. Large numbers of people read and trust newspapers. The SNAJ Code of Conduct recognises that journalists have a duty not to mislead the public.

The Swazi Observer has failed the SNAJ test. The newspaper did not made adequate inquiries, do cross checking of the facts and it most certainly did not give the public accurate, balanced and comprehensive information.

This is not journalism. It is fiction.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

SWAZI PAPERS ACT AS JUDGES

Why is it that reporters in Swaziland insist on acting as if they were judges?

Hardly a day goes by without one newspaper or another publishing details of crimes that have been committed and convicting somebody of them before they have even had the chance to get to court.

There were a couple of these kind of stories in yesterday’s papers (Tuesday 9 October 2007.)

One report in the Times of Swaziland ‘Killed after graduation party’ told how a man who was driving his friends from a party was stabbed to death following an argument with a friend who refused to stop smoking in the car.

The report then gives a very detailed account of what happened. Or does it? It gives someone’s account. But as is typical of the Swazi newspapers the witness the reporter quotes extensively has no name. We are asked to trust the reporter that the story he writes is true. True or not, only one side of the story is given and how are we, the readers, to know whether the person telling the story was himself / herself involved in the incident and has a vested interest in putting out one side of the story?

The Times has found the man guilty before he even gets to court.

It is not the place of journalists and newspapers to make such judgements. The place for the story to be told is in court. The newspapers will have their chance to report the details then. In this case a man was arrested and was due to appear in court yesterday, so the newspapers wouldn’t have had to wait too long for the story.

A story in the Swazi Observer yesterday (9 October 2007) ‘Teacher in Sex Row With Pupil’ raises more interesting questions. This report is about a 12-year-old girl who says her teacher raped her. It quotes her extensively, which itself raises some ethical issues as she is a minor.

It doesn’t look as if the girl’s parents or guardian were present when she was interviewed (the girl speaks about actions her uncle took upon learning of the rape. I wonder why the reporter didn’t interview him, if he was present).

The Swazi National Association of Journalists’ Code of Ethics Article 16 is clear on this, stating that journalists shall protect the rights of minors and in criminal and other cases secure the consent of parents or guardians before interviewing or photographing them.

The girl’s account is not corroborated by anybody and the teacher involved claims that the girl is lying because he had exposed some love affairs among pupils. Incidentally, the report states that the teacher has threatened to take his own life, but gives no quote from the teacher to support this.

So what is the truth of the matter? I don’t know, and nor do the reporter or the Observer’s editor. Journalists should not deal in rumour and gossip; they should deal in factually based information. However, the way that the report is written makes it clear to the reader that we should believe the girl’s side of the story.

It doesn’t seem that the police are involved in this case yet and one can’t but help wonder why, since the incident is alleged to have happened on 14 September and the girl reported the matter to her uncle.

This is another case of the newspapers finding a person guilty without benefit of a trial.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

WOMEN SILENCED ON ABORTION

Why is nobody in the Swazi media talking to the women at the centre of the present abortion coverage?

We have NGOs, police officers, ‘Christians’ and other assorted moralists, but we haven’t heard a word from the women themselves.

The discovery of more than 100 foetuses, found dumped in a stream in Matsapha, has forced Swazis to confront a truth they would rather not face. Lots of women have abortions even though in Swaziland abortions are illegal (although the Swazi Constitution allows them in extreme cases of rape and incest).

It is not only Swazis who won’t face the truth about abortion: the media don’t want to know either.

For those who have not been paying attention here’s a recap of what’s been going on.

More than 100 foetuses have been found over a period of two weeks dumped in a stream in the industrial town of Matsapha. The Swazi News (22 September 2007) reported that a local resident had found the first lot of 71 foetuses bundled together in plastic bags. Other foetuses were later found.

All this led the Swazi News to speculate that there was ‘a secret backdoor abortion operation in Matsapha.’ The newspaper offered no evidence in its report to support this statement.

Speculation about where the foetuses came from spread alarmingly. The Swazi Observer (27 September 2007) accused a health shop in Manzini of being the source of the abortions.

According to its report, the health centre has a massager machine that pregnant women were using to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, by forcing miscarriages upon themselves. The report also stated that some people had bought massagers themselves and used them to perform backyard abortions for a fee.

The reports on the massager raise serious questions that the Observer does not answer. It does not name any of its sources for its information, nor did it track down any of the back street abortionists. The newspaper could not complain if its readers did not believe the story to be true. The readers’ suspicions may be well founded because no other media outlet (as far as I can see) followed up the massager angle.

I suspect that the reporter of the massager story also had his doubts since he reported claims that the machine had cured a woman of breast cancer and one person said the massager ‘helped him remove two bats from his body while another claims a pair of snails and maggots came out.’

A number of women work in local textile factories live close to the spot where the foetuses were found and suspicion immediately fell on them. One Member of Parliament (MP) speaking on SBIS radio (and reported in the Observer 27 September 2007) blamed the dumping of foetuses ‘on the lowly paid women at the industrial sites. He said most of them had to find ways of ridding themselves of unwanted pregnancies because of the economic consequences of seeing through such pregnancies.’

The Observer offered no evidence to support the MP’s view, even though the idea that ‘most of’ the women working in the textile factories needed to have abortions is patently absurd.

Even so, the idea that women working in textile factories aborted the foetuses has taken hold in the Swazi newspapers.

But nowhere among all the acres of newspaper that has been used on this story have we heard from the women in the textile factories themselves. And what about women who have had abortions? We know that many women have had abortions in Swaziland so why don’t the media talk to some of them about why they had them?

Without these voices the coverage of the abortion issue remains incomplete. We now know a number of people have been arrested in connection with the finding of the foetuses. It is likely that in due course there will be court cases and who knows maybe they will be sent to prison. I am sure all this will be covered in the media.

But unless the Swazi journalists make more effort to talk to the women at the centre of this story we are likely to only know what happened, but we will never discover why it happened.

Monday, 8 October 2007

NEWS ABOUT WOMEN SELLS PAPERS

I have been writing a lot lately about various aspects of gender in the Swazi media. Last Thursday for example, I wrote about how ‘ordinary’ women were hardly ever featured in the Swazi press.

Thinking about the raw deal women get in Swaziland reminded me of some research that was conducted in 2005 that looked at what women (and men) wanted from their media in Swaziland. One of the study’s conclusions was that more and diverse stories about women would sell papers.

The Swaziland Gender and Media Audience Study conducted by Gender Links was the first (and to date only) comprehensive study of how people in Swaziland access the news and what kinds of things they like to read, hear and see.

The study interviewed 88 women and 91 men, a total sample of 179 from three of Swaziland’s major urban centres.

The study found that radio was by far the most important source of news (53 per cent of women, 63 per cent of men). The largely rural country in which literacy levels are relatively low explains this.

Television was the second main source of news for women (31 per cent) and the third main source for men (17 per cent). The second most important source of news for men was newspapers (19 per cent) with women 16 per cent. No women and very few men (1 per cent) access the Internet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found there was a strong correlation between levels of education and the main source of news. Women and men with primary level education constitute the highest proportion of those who chose radio as their main source of news. Women with secondary and tertiary education constitute the highest proportion of those who chose television as their main source of news. People with tertiary education constitute the highest proportion of those who chose newspapers as their main source of news.

Most of the women (74 per cent) and men (63 per cent) interviewed prefer short news reports to any other news genre. A low proportion of Swazi women (7 per cent) preferred in-depth features (compared to 24 per cent of men). Double the number of women (14 per cent) as men (7 per cent) cited news that asks for feedback as their favourite genre.

Who chooses the news medium?
Most men in Swaziland (60 per cent) make their own decisions about where they get their news from compared to 53 per cent of women. Given the status of women in the country the fact that the majority of women make their own choice with little interference from spouse or partner is significant. This could be a warning to media owners that they ought to take women consumers more seriously in their own right.

Representation of women in the news
There are mixed views in Swaziland about whether the news reflects the concerns of women and men equally and about whether women are accessed often or seldom as sources. The study recorded that women constitute 17 per cent of news sources in Swaziland

There were strong perceptions of gender biases in the news. When asked to identify the roles in which women and men are most frequently portrayed in the news audiences said that women predominate in roles that emphasise their vulnerability and or physical attributes, while men feature in more diverse range of roles often associated with power, money and prestige.

There were strong views about the way women are portrayed as sex objects in news media. Swaziland is a conservative society reflected in the findings that 36 per cent of women and 49 per cent of men said they felt uncomfortable when they saw very sexual images of women in the news. Only 6 per cent of women and 4 per cent of men said such images encouraged them to buy newspapers or watch the news.

Women (76 per cent) and men (41 per cent) said they would find the news more interesting if the ideas and views of women were reported more often. Most women (79 per cent) and men (51 per cent) agreed that the news would be more interesting if there were stories about women doing a wider range of things.

Conclusions
The Swaziland Gender and Media Audience Study leads us to conclude that media decision makers should be aware that women make decisions about what to buy / hear / see. Also, that sex does not sell in Swaziland. This will come as a shock to the editors of the weekend and Sunday newspapers in Swaziland.

Friday, 5 October 2007

THE TRUTH TOLD FROM TAIWAN

The Swaziland newspapers and other media have been bursting with items about the kingdom and its ‘friendship’ with the Republic of China (Taiwan) over the past few weeks.

In September King Mswati III flew off to the island along with leaders of the African states Burkina Faso, Gambia, Malawi, and Sao Tome and Principe to discuss how they could help Taiwan in its bid to get elected to the United Nations (UN). In return Taiwan offered the Africans development aid.

Swazi journalists have been feted and as a result articles have appeared all over the newspapers. Last week’s Times Sunday (30 September 2007) had a full page ‘post card’ from the newspaper’s editor who was being hosted in Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, he wrote he was having a marvellous time. Mbongeni Mbingo said, ‘I was overwhelmed by the reception I received from the hosts, from the foreign office to everyone at the amazing hotels I have been booked into.’

High on the Swazi journalists’ agendas has been the claim that Swaziland was supporting Taiwan because it was fighting an undemocratic neighbour (mainland or People’s Republic of China ) to be given a seat at the UN. The irony that Swaziland is not itself a democracy was lost on the Swazi journalists.

It has taken a Taiwanese journalist and a Taiwan newspaper to point this out.

Kim Lee, writing in the Taipei Times says that three heads of state (including Swaziland) who support Taiwan’s UN application have bad human rights records.

This is what he had to say about Swaziland.

‘Swaziland's King Mswati III is neither as cynical nor sinister as his West African counterparts. Still, despite his supporters’ protestations to the contrary, he is an absolute ruler who is not bound by the nation's Constitution, which his father suspended in 1973, banning political parties in the process.

‘As head of state, he gets to decide his (allegedly exorbitant) salary, has an unspecified amount of shares and investments in many of the nation's industries, and splurges US$500,000 on custom-made cars while two-thirds of his subjects languish in abject poverty.

‘The country has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world (nearly 40 percent), with many deprived of access to life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs, yet this globulous bon vivant taxes charities and educational organizations because of a budgetary shortfall.

‘Amnesty International has also expressed its concerns about frequent rights abuses in the kingdom, with accusations of assaults.’


Lee advises his readers and the president of Taiwan Chen Shui-bian to be more careful in choosing friends. Critics disparage Taiwan’s African allies (including Swaziland) ‘as irrelevances; diplomatic backwaters that do little for the nation, while scrounging for handouts’.

Lee adds. ‘The question is: Does maintaining ties with these countries hinge on publicly praising their leaders as beacons of democracy and freedom?

‘Chen should keep private his handshakes, obsequious grins and congratulatory phone calls. Otherwise he appears nothing more than a soulless hypocrite.’

So is Swaziland ‘scrounging’ for handouts as Lee suggests? Perhaps, the Times Sunday editor will tell us when he returns from his free holiday.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

SWAZI PRESS IGNORES MOST WOMEN

Newspaper reports on women tend to focus on successful or prominent women rather than ‘ordinary’ people.

This was the main funding from a report published recently.

The Media Monitoring Project researched newspapers in South Africa as part of its Women’s Day campaign to get the media to show their support for women by focusing not only on the prominent women in government and business, but especially on ‘ordinary’ women and their roles in effecting social change. This includes women who successfully entered the workforce in previously male dominated environments, as women were, and to some extent still are, excluded from some of these workplaces.

The report stated that the media tended to continue in the ways of the past and concentrated on prominent women and did not cover ‘normal women’ engaging in acts to change society.

Women’s Day on 9 August 2007 was a national day for South Africa and so not marked in Swaziland. However, a study of the Swazi Press would reveal that things are not much different in the kingdom.

To see whether the newspapers in Swaziland were any different to those in South Africa I surveyed a week’s worth of papers (13 – 19 August 2007).

The first thing I noticed was how few reports and articles that had women as central characters were published at all. In the Swazi Observer I counted 12 over the entire week and in the Times of Swaziland I counted only eight. There were three in the Weekend Observer and one each in the Swazi News (published Saturday) and the Times Sunday.

In the Observer only four of the stories involved ‘ordinary’ women of which two concerned women in rural community development projects. One was about women receiving a donation for HIV work and the final story involved a court case.

The stories involving ‘prominent’ people in the Observer included stories about the king’s wives, finalists in the Business Women of the Year Award (all from urban companies as far as I could tell), the Deputy Prime Minister (a woman) urging women to take a lead in development and the Minister of Tourism (also a woman) who was nominated for an ‘achievement’ award.

In the Times, all but one of the stories were about ‘ordinary’ people, but most were about women who had suffered misfortune, for example as victims or perpetrators of crime. The only ‘prominent’ story was about the Business Woman of the Year nominations.

The Weekend Observer had three stories, which concentrated on women and all were about prominent women (a princess, the director of Women and Law of South Africa and the chief executive officer (ceo) of the Observer group of newspapers). The Observer ceo was reported saying that women in Swaziland are still marginalized. The irony of her statement is there for all to see when you consider how little her own newspapers do to represent women in their pages.

The Swazi News only had one story about a woman and this was about a US singing star who was due to tour South Africa.

The Times Sunday only had one story that featured a woman and this was about an ‘ordinary’ woman who witnessed a shooting.

These statistics should make worrying reading for the editors of Swaziland’s newspapers. What they show is that hardly any stories about women (prominent or ordinary) get into their papers.

Last week the results of the 2007 Swaziland population census revealed that there are more females than males living in Swaziland. That’s an awful lot of people being ignored by the newspapers.

Also, research by Gender Links into what people in Swaziland said they wanted to see in their newspapers has revealed they want to see more stories about women.

This leads me to conclude that if Swaziland’s newspapers want to have healthy sales figures editors need to rethink their news agenda very quickly.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

SWAZILAND IS ON ITS KNEES

A remarkable ‘open letter’ published in both the Swazi Observer and Times of Swaziland should spark the most important debate in Swaziland for a generation.

Swaziland is on its knees and the kingdom’s ability to stand and face adversity is slowly being eaten away. ‘HIV, death, disease and poverty have sapped the very strength required to overcome these challenges.’ These are the words of Derek Von Wissell, director of the National Emergency Response to HIV AIDS, published in the two newspapers on Monday (1 October 2007).

Von Wissell identified a kingdom in which 23 per cent of children aged under 18 years are orphans. ‘Poverty is pervasive and hunger is accepted with resignation.’

‘The economy is just as devastated. There is little economic growth and employment has been static for years’, he writes.

Von Wissell has opened a debate that few in Swaziland have dared to tackle before. Swaziland is simply dying and no one has a way of stopping this happening.

A tiny majority are bleeding the kingdom dry at the expense of the majority. ‘More than 60 per cent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of only 20 per cent of the people, while the poorest 20 per cent own only two percent of the wealth,’ he writes.

What makes Von Wissell’s article different from others you can read in the Swazi press is that he goes beyond simply describing the endemic corruption and the poverty in Swaziland. He offers concrete solutions.

He writes, ‘We must develop a prioritised and costed five-year poverty alleviation action plan. This includes taking a hard look at our resources and reprioritising our own spending. We must seek out donors and financiers for support. We must set performance targets and account for the results to the nation.

‘With the planting season upon us, the nation could buy 100 tractors and implements to plough and plant every available field with appropriate crops. Give people tools to look after these crops and pay them a salary to work the fields – even if the fields are their own. People need assistance to survive to the next harvest.
- Buy 20,000 quality goats and give them away to people with appropriate grazing.
- Buy 500,000 indigenous chickens and restock households.
- Give a diary cow to 5,000 households.
- Buy 50,000 fruit trees for those who want them.
- Build small dams and install 1,000 micro irrigation projects to plant vegetables.
- Invite the private sector to join government and assist wherever it can.

‘These ideas and others like them are designed to put back into the hands of the community. These are not handouts, these are assets that families can use to build upon.’

The total cost for the Von Wissell plan would be E100 million (14.5 million US dollars), a fraction of the cost of one highway bypass or one airport.

The plan is a vision and the challenge to the Swazi media now is to facilitate the debate that could lead to real action aimed at saving Swaziland from destruction. Von Wissell who has a clearly articulated proposition has started the debate. Now is the time for media folk, politicians, civil society and other interested parties to get onboard.

I hope it will happen, but I am not optimistic. In the same edition of the Times that carried Von Wissell’s ‘open letter’ there was a short report on the Prime Minister Themba Dlamini’s suggestion to tackle poverty and HIV in Swaziland. His solution: ‘Pray to God.’

The Times reports, ‘The Prime Minister said government could do everything to try to reduce the problems facing the country but if assistance from above was not sought there would be no changes.’

The Times quotes the prime minister saying, ‘Without God there is nowhere we can go. We all have to ask God to lead us at all times’.

No, Mr Prime Minister, Swaziland needs ploughs, not prayers.

Let the debate begin.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

WHO DARES CRITICISE THE KING?

Has Swaziland suddenly become a free country? Is it now possible to say anything you like about the king without fearing for your safety?

I ask these questions after reading last week’s Times Sunday (30 September 2007) where two comment writers criticised the king.

The first was Dumisani Hlophe who stated quite clearly that the king should be ‘responsible and accountable for either the good or the ugly that may happen in Swaziland.’ He added, ‘I think, at some point or another, society must lay responsibility for some of the major decisions at the feet of the king.’

He wrote that people constantly blame the king’s advisors when bad decisions are made. This is not true, he wrote, ‘At what point should society lay responsibility at the feet of His Majesty?’ The reason why people don’t criticise the king, Dumisani concludes, is that they fear they will be arrested for articulating a contradictory position to the king.

But, Dumisani goes on, the king is head of state and as head of state he should be held accountable for the decisions and actions of the state.

The second comment article, this one by Musa Hlophe, was less critical, but he did attack the dual legal system that exists in Swaziland. This gives ‘traditionalists’ the power to overrule decisions made by government. These traditionalists are scaring potential investors away from Swaziland, he says.

Musa called on the king to ignore their advice. ‘The king has absolute control in deciding whether Swaziland can be freed from the grip of the traditionalist elite’, Musa writes.

‘So long as the government of the day has no power to run the country, then no amount of empty apologies will change our circumstances. In fact, I may add that no amount of breakfast meetings with the prime minister, who has no freedom to run the country, will change our circumstances for the better,’ he adds.

I found these two articles remarkable because there is no history of free speech about the king in Swaziland. King Mswati III holds all the power and no criticisms of the king are tolerated. Who can forget what happened after the Times Sunday published a report in March 2007 from the Afrol news agency that suggested that economic and social problems facing Swaziland stemmed from the private spending of the king?

The paper and its stablemate publication the Times of Swaziland were forced into issuing grovelling apologies, saying that this type of criticism was entirely out of order and that the report was ‘disparaging to the person of His Majesty in its content, greatly embarrassed him and should not have passed editorial scrutiny’.

King Mswati III has succeeded in censoring the newspapers in Swaziland on a number of occasions. For example in May 2006 he banned newspapers from writing about his wives without his permission, even while covering official events, after the Times Sunday interviewed one of his wives (with her consent) while she was sick in hospital. This was the second time in 12 months that the Swazi king gagged the media from reporting about royalty. It should be noted that this ban was not reported within Swaziland.

This banning by the king simply continued a trend that had been operating since before the new constitution, for example, in 2005, the king ordered the media to stop writing about his lavish spending after newspapers published that he had purchased US$500,000 worth of luxurious vehicles for his 13 wives.

The Swazi press seem to have heeded his orders. In August 2007 Forbes.com reported that King Mswati III was the richest monarch in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Forbes estimates his net worth to be 200 million US dollars (one billion four hundred thousand Swazi emalangeni). The news appeared in the foreign media, but I have never seen a single reference to this in the Swazi media.

I doubt that there is a new freedom of expression abroad in Swaziland. We must now wait to see what consequences the Times Sunday face for its publication.


Monday, 1 October 2007

ABUSE HURLED AT PRESS SECRETARY

The Swaziland press secretary Percy Simelane got a dose of his own medicine this week when an MP branded him a ‘herdboy’.

Simelane was roasted in the House of Assembly for the way he had responded to an international survey which had said that Swaziland came behind Zimbabwe when it came to good governance.

The Times of Swaziland on Friday (28 September 2007) reported that MPs thought that Simelane was not qualified to comment on the survey.

The row erupted after Simelane was quoted in the Times the previous day (Thursday 27 September 2007). He was reacting to a survey published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that ranked the quality of governance in sub-Saharan African countries according to these broad areas: safety and security, rule of law, transparency and corruption, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development.

In Thursday’s Times Simelane was quoted saying that the analysis was done ‘by boys’ and ‘not men of honour’. The Times reported him saying that the ‘so-called experts’ were ignorant of what was happening in Swaziland.

Friday’s Times reported on a session in the House of Assembly in which MPs said Simelane was ‘not suitable’ to answer questions on the matter. One MP said Simelane’s statement was ‘irresponsible’. Another said Simelane was ‘unqualified’ to speak.

Another MP was quoted saying that it would have been more suitable if a cabinet minister had responded to the survey rather than a ‘herdboy’ [Simelane].

The prime minister said the government would issue a formal statement once it had gathered more information about the study.

The row may be seen as good knock-about fun but it exposes some very important issues about the way information is handled in Swaziland.

The first and most obvious shortcoming is the level of debate. The press secretary hurled abuse at the survey’s writers and in turn he got a mouthful of abuse from the House of Assembly. Neither side comes out smelling of roses in this. But the exchange is entirely typical of the level of political debate in the kingdom.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation report is a serious survey that should provoke a serious response, but politicians in Swaziland (and a lot of the media too) are incapable of holding an intelligent, rational, discussion on anything.

The state of governance and the level of corruption in Swaziland should be issues of huge concern to people in Swaziland and parliament and the media should be facilitating a debate, but they are not.

Simelane’s response to the survey also highlights the sense of denial that takes place in Swaziland. By coincidence in the same week that the Mo Ibrahim survey was published, Transparency International published a report that said that governance in Swaziland had improved slightly in the past year, but that there was still a very long journey ahead before the kingdom would reach a satisfactory state of governance.

So, there clearly is a need for a continuing debate on governance to be staged in Swaziland. But the Government Press Secretary decided to deny that there was a problem and instead decided to shoot the messenger.

Another point we need to consider about the row over Simelane is more general. Surely, the whole point of having press secretaries is that they speak on behalf of government. In criticising Simelane’s qualification to speak on the issue of governance and instead demanding that a cabinet minister comments, the MPs seem to be saying either that press secretaries don’t speak on behalf of government (in which case what are they for?) or that Percy Simelane himself isn’t up to the job.

Perhaps, some MP would enlighten us.