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Monday, 21 January 2013

THE STATE OF SWAZI JOURNALISM, 2013

(Repost of article posted 1 January 2013)

Cynicism eats away at Swazi journalism


One thing that shines out about journalists and their editors in Swaziland as we come to the start of a new year is the deeply cynical way they operate.

Swazi journalists claim to be upholders of fine ethical traditions of honesty and inquiry, but instead they are often publishing lies or playing with readers’ emotions to boost company profits.

There are only two newspaper groups in Swaziland, the Swazi Observer, which is in effect owned by King Mwsati III, through the Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, a conglomerate of companies he holds ‘in trust’ for the Swazi nation, and the commercially-independent Times of Swaziland group.

I am leaving out TV and radio journalists from this discussion because nearly all of them work for the state-controlled SBIS radio or Swazi TV. These stations come under direct editorial control of the government of the day and their staffs are civil servants and not independent journalists. The one radio station and one TV channel not under direct government control either carry no news or openly support the king and the kingdom’s traditionalists.

The Swazi Observer is open about its role in the kingdom. From time to time the editors state in their papers that their job is to support the king and the traditionalists come what may. We shouldn’t confuse this with support for the government of the day, because as everyone knows the government has no power: that rests with King Mswati, who is sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.

The Swazi Observer is honest in its purpose: although it doesn’t say it in so many words it is not meant to be ‘journalism’; it is propaganda for the king. Even if readers miss the occasional ‘mission statements’ from the editors they only have to read the content of the Swazi Observer and Weekly Observer to see how the land lies. Only this week the Observer published what it called the ‘philosophy’ of King Mswati.

This was neither a news story nor a feature / comment article; it was simply a statement with a list of the King’s beliefs. The article began with these words, ‘His Majesty King Mswati III, Ingwenyama yemaswati, believes in dialogue, respect and honest engagement as a way to resolve any differences on any issue.’

Anybody following events in Swaziland will recognise the falsity of the statement.

Many people in Swaziland know the Observer is a propaganda rag and so don’t buy it. It is impossible to get any independently-audited figures for newspaper sales in Swaziland, but the evidence of our own eyes at shops and roadside news vendors suggests that for every 10 copies the Observer sells, the Times probably sells 15.

The Times of Swaziland is published Monday to Friday. Its companions, the Swazi News comes out on Saturday and there is also a separate title, the Times Sunday. In these papers it is possible to find the work of the most cynical journalists and editors.

They claim in their own columns to be upholders of journalist standards of the highest order and go on public record to defend themselves against complaints from critics. But the evidence shows us they are nothing of the sort.

Here’s an example. Just before Christmas (2012) the Times Sunday published an article from a regular columnist that stated that when it came to gender-based violence women abused men more than the other way round and ‘most’ women who were beaten up by men brought it upon themselves. He then spent his entire article attacking women and defending men. He went so far as to say that married women who left abusive relationships were ‘bitches’.

After the article was published it generated an unprecedented outcry from readers. The Times’ top editors and the newspapers’ ‘readers’ representative’ (ombudsman) all leapt to the writer’s defence.
The ombudsman (who is in fact a woman) wrote in the Times Sunday in response to the critics that the newspaper was, ‘justified in strongly advocating our own views on controversial topics provided that the readers are treated fairly by making fact and opinion clearly distinguishable, not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts and not distorting such facts.’

And, there’s the cynicism. The article was not based on any ‘facts’. In no country in the world are more women accused and convicted of gender-based violence than men. Nor, is there evidence that ‘most’ women who are attacked bring it upon themselves.

The Times’ editors took a similar line to the ombudsman on the article, highlighting their beliefs that they were entitled to publish articles that generated debate and to stop them doing so was to curtail freedom of speech.

But, if we follow the Times’ own ombudsman’s reckoning the article should never have been published because it did not distinguish clearly between fact and opinion and it misrepresented ‘facts’. What the writer wrote was demonstrably not true.

This was an example of what I call ‘flat-Earth journalism’ – the Times newspapers publish a lot of this.

This is how it works: you get somebody to write that the Earth is flat – it helps if he is so ignorant he doesn’t realise that he’s ignorant and actually believes it. You give him 1,000 words to say why all those people who disagree with him are wrong, devoid of intelligence, have never read a book in their lives, they come from Botswana, etc. He doesn’t have to give any facts, but he must argue strongly for his case. It helps greatly if he can quote a verse or two from the Bible that he claims supports his stand.

Once the article is published and the complaints come in, the writer can dismiss the complainants as ignorant, racists, donor-funded, neo-colonialists etc. – or a combination of these. The editors can say the writer is entitled to his views even if the newspaper doesn’t necessarily agree with them and the writer can claim to be a beacon of honesty and he will stand up and say whatever he believes in the name of media freedom, even under pain of death.

It’s all baloney of course. No matter how much a writer and the editors huff and puff about it, the fact is that the Earth is not flat, it is round.

So, what’s happening at the Times? We might conclude that the editors are incredibly stupid and really believe the Earth is flat, or indeed they believe that more women really do beat up men rather than the other way round. Therefore, the editors can’t see what all the fuss from their critics is about. If this is the case, there is not much hope for them, or for the readers of the Times.

However, if we assume they are not stupid, then they must be cynical. The Times simply publishes articles, no matter how devoid of fact or reasoning, so they can get a response from readers – and that keeps them buying the papers day after day. Lots of interest is generated and column centimetres of the paper are filled (at no cost to the newspapers’ publisher).

This is something the Times does all the time.

One example will suffice here. On 12 December 2012 the Times published a letter from a reader calling for ‘rights’ for zombies because they were subjected to forced labour. This letter provoked responses from other readers, including one that said, ‘zombies do exist and the practice is widespread’.  

I’d like to think this discussion was a spoof, but it was no more devoid of fact or reason than the article on gender violence. So if the gender article wasn’t a spoof, there’s no reason to assume the zombie letters were either. This must lead us to the conclusion that the editors believe they can publish any old nonsense in the Times, so long as it gets a response.

So, although the practice shows intense disrespect for the reader, it suggests that the journalists and editors at the Times are following a deliberate cynical commercial policy.

The Times claims it upholds journalism ethics by allowing unpopular or controversial topics to be discussed, such as the one on gender. But, actually the Times newspapers stifle more discussion than they allow.

The most obvious example concerns the reason for Swaziland’s decline in recent years. Anyone who studies the kingdom can see that major factors in this decline are the activities of the monarchy (presently topped by King Mswati and his mother) and the traditionalists who group around them. It is possible to trace most of the kingdom’s economic, political and social problems back to its feudal structure, with the king and his mum at the top of the pile.

The only possible way to map a way forward for Swaziland is to have a long, detailed, discussion about what has to change and why. The Times does not allow this discussion because it is scared of King Mswati and it knows he will hurt the newspapers’ profitability if it does so.

We know this for a fact because in April 2007 the Times Sunday published a minor criticism of King Mswati, sourced from an international news agency. The king went ballistic and told the Times publisher Paul Loffler he would close the paper down unless people responsible for the publication at the paper were sacked and the newspaper published an abject apology to the king. These things were done.
 
The Swazi Observer is at least honest in publicly nailing its colours for the king to the mast, but the Times is not. Loffler, whose family is from Namibia, is on record saying in a South African newspaper that Swaziland doesn’t need democracy, but you won’t hear him say that in his own papers. Could this be because to let this be generally known would be bad for business? People unhappy with the propaganda in the Observer would not to buy the Times instead because they would know both papers were as bad as each other.  

It is not only in the area of comment that the journalists are cynical. Defending the gender article, the Times’ ombudsman said the papers upheld the kingdom’s journalism codes of ethics. Article one of the code states, ‘The duty of every journalist is to write and report, adhere to and faithfully defend the truth. A journalist should make adequate inquiries, do cross-checking of facts in order to provide the public with unbiased, accurate, balanced and comprehensive information.’

Not only does the Times publish inaccurate articles, it also tells its readers outright lies.

Here’s just one example from the past year to illustrate this. On 21 October 2012 the Times Sunday published a report about a petition sent by a group in the United Kingdom called the Swaziland Vigil to the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. 

According to the Times Sunday, the petition read in part, ‘Exiled Swazis and supporters urge you to put pressure on (the Swazi government) to allow political freedom, freedom of the press, rule of law, respect for women and affordable AIDS drugs in Swaziland.’

The newspaper inserted the words ‘the Swazi government’ into the petition to make it seem that it was Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini and his cabinet that was being criticised.

In fact, the petition sent to Cameron actually read, ‘Petition to the British Government: Exiled Swazis and supporters urge you to put pressure on absolute monarch King Mswati III to allow political freedom, freedom of the press, rule of law, respect for women and affordable AIDs drugs in Swaziland.’  

The Swaziland Vigil made it very clear that it was criticising ‘absolute monarch King Mswati III’. The Times Sunday deliberately distorted the petition to deflect criticism away from King Mswati – or put another way, it told a clear unambiguous lie to its readers.

Once this lie became public there was not a squeak from the Times’ editors, or the papers’ ombudsman, defending their right to deceive their readers. Instead, they kept their collective heads down and pretended nothing had happened and hoped it would all blow over.

Which for the most part it did. 

This behaviour demonstrates that editors cannot be trusted to tell their readers the truth, even at the most basic level. 

So what hope is there for the future of journalism in Swaziland? Not much if truth be told. 

While the editors remain cynical and journalists are content to do their bosses bidding nothing can change. New journalists entering the job (we can’t call it a ‘profession’ or ‘calling’ in Swaziland) who genuinely believe in the journalists’ code of ethical conduct will soon find the rotten elements presently in control driving them out: either literally, by sacking them, or by making life so hard for them they have to quit or sink to the same depths as their colleagues.

That’s what cynicism does, like cancer it rots away at a healthy body until it’s completely eaten up and it can do nothing else but die.

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