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Friday, 1 February 2013

BROADCASTING IS NOT FOR THE PEOPLE



The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Swaziland chapter wants the government to progress its draft Bill that would to turn the state radio and television stations into ‘public service broadcasters’. But, the appeal will fall on deaf ears.

MISA in its review of the year 2012 appealed to the Ministry for Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) to expedite the tabling of the Public Service Broadcasting Corporation Draft Bill 2007.  

‘We believe that this transformation is necessary to ensure equal access to media by all citizens irrespective of their status. This is consistent with the Constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and other media including the press,’ MISA stated.

MISA is clearly being optimistic: the draft Bill, along with six other media Bills were first tabled in 2007 and none have made it to law.

The reason for this is clear: it is not in the interests of King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, to free the airwaves.

At present, nearly all broadcasting in Swaziland is state controlled. Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Service (SBIS) oversees state radio stations. The only independent radio is Voice of the Church, a Christian station that does not carry news

There are only two TV stations in the kingdom, the state-controlled Swazi TV and the independent Channel S, which has a publicly-stated policy of supporting King Mswati.

Most people in Swaziland get their news and information from radio. Newspapers hardly penetrate rural areas where more than 70 percent of the population lives and television is too expensive for most people.

Currently, broadcasters in Swaziland serve the interests of the ruling elites and not those of the people. Broadcasting is state-controlled, that means no criticism is allowed on the airwaves of the status quo in Swaziland. Any criticism of the ruling elite is seen as ‘non-Swazi’. The Prime Minister is editor-in-chief of the Swazi broadcasting and can decide what goes on the air and what does not.

GOVERNMENT RESTRICTIONS

As recently as August 2012, the government, which is not elected, but handpicked by King Mswati, issued guidelines for state broadcasters that barred all coverage of events, ‘except those authorised by relevant authorities’.

This was in the run up of the national election that will take place in 2013 at a date yet to be set by the king.

The guidelines also prohibited ‘public service announcements’ unless they were ‘in line with government policy’ or had been authorised ‘by the chiefs through the regional administrators’ or deputy prime minister’s office’.

The guidelines said the radio stations could not be ‘used for purposes of campaigning by individuals or groups, or to advance an agenda for political, financial popularity gains for individuals or groups’.

In Swaziland all political parties are banned and people are only able to stand for election as individuals.

HISTORY OF CENSORSHIP

There is a long history of censorship on SBIS. Strikes and anti-government demonstrations are usually ignored by the radio. Sometimes live programmes are censored on air. In July 2011, the plug was pulled on a phone-in programme when listeners started criticising the government for its handling of the economy. Percy Simelane, who was then the boss of SBIS, and is now the government’s official spokesperson, personally stormed the radio studio and cut the programme.

In April 1 2011, Welile Dlamini, a long-time news editor at SBIS, challenged Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini at an editors’ forum meeting on why the state radio station was told by the government what and what not to broadcast. Dlamini said that at the station they were instructed to spike certain stories such as those about demonstrations by progressives and strike action by workers. The PM responded by saying editors should resign if they were not happy with the editorial policies they were expected to work with.

In March 2011, SBIS stopped broadcasting the BBC World Service Focus on Africa programme after it carried reports critical of King Mswati III. In the same month, SBIS failed to cover the march by nurses that forced the Swazi Government into paying them overdue allowances.

In 2010, Swazi police told SBIS it must stop allowing people to broadcast information about future meetings unless the police had given permission. Jerome Dlamini, Deputy Director of SBIS, said this was to stop the radio station airing an announcement for a meeting that was prohibited.

He said, ‘It’s the station’s policy not to make announcements without police permission.’ The police directive came to light when the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) tried to get an announcement aired about one of its meetings.

In 2006, the minister for public service and information, Themba Msibi, warned the Swazi broadcasters against criticising the king.

MISA reported at the time, ‘The minister’s threats followed a live radio programme of news and current affairs in which a human rights lawyer criticised the king’s sweeping constitutional powers.’

Human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, had been asked to comment on a visit by an African Union (AU) human rights team which was on a fact-finding mission to Swaziland.

‘In response, Maseko said that, as human rights activists, they had concerns about the king’s sweeping constitutional powers and the fact that he the king was wrongfully placed above the Constitution. He said they were going to bring this and other human rights violations to the attention of the AU delegation.

‘Not pleased with the broadcast, the government was quick to respond. Msibi spoke on air the following day to sternly warn the media against criticising the king. He said the media should exercise respect and avoid issues that seek to question the king or his powers.

‘The minister said his message was not directed only to radio but to all media, both private and government-owned. He said that in government they had noticed that there was growing trend in the media to criticise the king when he should be above criticism and public scrutiny,’ MISA reported.

SBIS BULLETIN RESEARCH

SBIS is clearly an arm of government, but you would not know this by reading its own account on its website.

It says SBIS is, ‘responsible for disseminating news and information aimed at educating, informing and entertaining the Swazi nation effectively and impartially for the purposes of development and social welfare through radio broadcasts and publications.’

It goes on to say SBIS ‘values’ are, ‘Accountability to the full spectrum of all people of Swaziland for providing high quality programs and information services; commitment to truth and balanced reporting; compassion and concern for human dignity, life and environment; and, professionalism, efficiency, reliability, management and financial accountability.

These values do not seem to be compatible with what is actually happening on the airwaves. One way to demonstrate this is to study what the SBIS radio stations actually broadcast as ‘news’. There is very little information about this since nobody has taken much trouble to research it. However, in 2007 one research project did look at the SBIS Radio Swaziland English language station radio news bulletins.  

It looked at news bulletins for five days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) spread over a two week period in November. The bulletins which ran for 10 minutes in the evenings were broadcast at 18.00 hrs and repeated word-for-word one hour later.

The bulletins were unusual in radio terms because they did not contain any news reporting as such. Instead, a single reader announced the news from a script. Often the reader announced in flat tones which made even the most potentially interesting report sound like a death notice. Nowhere in the bulletins were there any ‘on-the-spot’ reports from journalists at the scene where news happened.

The research commented, ‘All this makes listening to Radio Swaziland News a very uncomfortable and boring experience.’

The news items covered were not very interesting either.

The survey counted the first six items in the news bulletin, making a total of 30 from across the five days. Of these 30, only three reports in the entire period were not about the Royal Family or government ministries.

As an example, here is the running order for the news on Thursday 8 November 2007. The bulletin started with a report from the Ministry of Enterprise and Employment that an overseas’ company might set up a factory in Swaziland to manufacture bags. This was followed by reports from the Ministry of Housing, the Ministry for Tourism, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Public Services and the Ministry of Public Works.

In all the above cases the ‘news’ report was mostly an announcement about something positive that a government ministry was doing.

It is said by media observers in Swaziland that all stations under the control of SBIS have a definite hierarchy that must be followed when it comes to presenting the news. It runs something like this: stories about King Mswati always lead, followed by the Prime Minister, Cabinet and then individual ministers and MPs.

I don’t know if this hierarch officially exists, that is that it is written down as a definite policy, but the evidence of the survey suggests that it is true. During the five days of the research on two days there were stories about the Royal Family and both times they were the first story read out. This was even when one of the reports only involved the king in a minor way (it was about a fund he had founded making a donation to build a health clinic).

The research compared the reality of the bulletins with SBIS’s own objectives. It concluded that Radio Swaziland News failed to entertain. ‘It is informative only in the narrow sense that it contains information from government departments but it is difficult to see how any listener could make any use of the information that the bulletins contain.

‘The news is not impartial since the only point of view it contains comes from an official Royal Family or the king’s government.’

Although the research is from 2007, regular listeners of SBIS would probably agree that nothing has changed in the five years since it was undertaken.

PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING

So what about SBIS as a public service broadcaster?  Many people who are involved in the debate on the future of broadcasting in Swaziland are confusing the two terms ‘public broadcasting service’ and ‘public service broadcasting’.

A ‘public broadcasting service’ is a service that is broadcast to the public. This can include radio and television that is state-controlled, commercial broadcasting, church broadcasting, national stations, local stations and community stations. It is a generic term and includes all forms of broadcasting that reaches an audience. Even very small stations such as the stations that broadcast exclusively to one chain of shops, which play music and commercials advising customers of the bargains of the day (such as you hear in some supermarkets) could be called a public broadcasting service.

The radio and television stations broadcast from Swaziland, although mostly state-controlled are public broadcasting services.

‘Public service broadcasting’ on the other hand is a very particular kind of broadcasting and most definitely not broadcast from Swaziland.

Public service broadcasting aims to inform, educate and entertain in a way in which the commercial or state sector left unregulated would not do. Generally, it is understood that public service broadcasters air a wide range of programmes in a variety of tastes and interests. They speak to everyone as a citizen and everyone has an opportunity to access the airways and participate in public life.

The World Radio and Television Council put it well when it defined public service broadcasting ‘as a meeting place where all citizens are welcome and considered equals. It is an information and education tool, accessible to all and meant for all, whatever their social or economic status.’

The truth of the matter is that public service broadcasting cannot exist alongside state control. Despite a new constitution coming into force in 2006, Swaziland is a closed society. There is limited freedom of association, freedom of expression or freedom of action. Cultural norms restrict what people can say and how they behave and cultural elites can decide what is permissible or what is ‘un-Swazi’ and therefore impermissible.

To succeed, public service broadcasting must keep a distance from vested interests (in the case of Swaziland that is the ruling elite). Radio and television stations need to be left alone to make their own decisions regarding business and the content of their channels. If state money is to be used to finance any public service broadcasting services there needs to be a clear understanding (preferably in law) that the state can only contribute the money and it has no right to interfere in the broadcasting stations.

Today, six years after the publication of the draft Public Service Broadcasting Corporation Bill the Swazi Government has not taken a single step toward making its stations public service broadcasters.

This is because public service broadcasting in providing access to a wide range of information and ideas serves as an instrument of popular empowerment through its programming. This empowerment goes against the grain in Swaziland, which is a not a democracy.

Public service broadcasting is inconceivable for the Swazi ruling elite because it allows access to all, caters for minority tastes and views (and more importantly opinions) and encourages questioning and democracy.

There will need to be changes in Swaziland before there can be public service broadcasting and the most obvious change that is needed is democracy. People who cannot understand the principles of democratic life cannot appreciate how public service broadcasting differs from a public broadcasting service.

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