The young monarch is not insensitive to criticism. In July 2001 he drew attention to the fact that the 1973 Royal Proclamation to the Nation is "supreme law". "Legislative, executive and judicial powers are under the authority" of the king. He also signed a decree authorising the suspension of any publication, without having to give a reason. However, faced with mobilisation of the international community and massive demonstrations in the country, he subsequently went back on his decision and partly cancelled the decree. Three months earlier the United States had expressed its concern as to the slowness of reform in Swaziland, and its hopes for radical change in the political structures of the kingdom.
Concerned about its image abroad, the Swazi government launched a new cable television channel in March to show that the government does observe human rights and is tending towards a democratic system. Channel S is supposed to offer foreign media an "impartial source of news about Swaziland". The channel is above all intended to boost foreign investment and tourism in the country. One of King Mswati III’s eight wives hosts a weekly artistic programme.
The state-owned Swazi Observer reappeared in 2001, a year after its closure by its own management committee just before an issue with an article on the government’s inability to end drug-trafficking in the country was to be printed.
Independent newspapers have huge problems gaining access to official news. Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants are very suspicious of the private-sector press and are particularly reticent when an independent journalist ask them for information.
According to the government, certain freelance journalists sometimes act unprofessionally when collecting and verifying information, and sell their articles to South African newspapers avid for scandals about the kingdom. "That’s true", commented a local observer, "but it’s not up to the police to clean up the press."
One journalist arrested
Police arrested Thulani Mthethwa, one of the managers of the privately-owned weekly The Guardian, on 1 May 2001 at the weekly’s head office. They asked him to reveal the sources of a report that King Mswati III had been the victim of attempted poisoning. The police claimed to be looking for information in connection with an inquiry underway at the royal palace. The journalist refused but was nevertheless released a few hours later.
One journalist attacked
On 19 October 2001 Thulasizwe Mkhabela, a photo-reporter for the daily Times of Swaziland and the weekly Swazi News, was assaulted by police in Manzini, in central Swaziland. The journalist was covering a banned press conference held by leaders of SFTU (Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions) and the SDA (Swaziland Democratic Alliance). Several journalists were threatened by the police and expelled from the SFTU head office at which the press conference was to be held. The Times of Swaziland photographer was assaulted by police while taking photos of policemen manhandling one of the participants at the press conference. Thulasizwe Mkhabela was hit with a truncheon before getting away.
Pressure and obstruction
In early May 2001 information minister Mntonzima Dlamini ordered the suspension of the weekly The Guardian and the monthly The Nation. The authorities accused the two publications of not paying their registration tax of 1,000 emalangeni (about 130 euros). This decision was taken by virtue of a publishing law passed in 1963. The Nation and The Guardian are known for their severe criticism of the authorities and especially King Mswati III. The managing editor of The Guardian affirmed that this ban could be linked to an article about an attempt to poison the king. On 18 May Jacobus Annandale, a high court judge, lifted the ban on the monthly The Nation, which he considered to be illegal. The information minister again ordered the suspension of the two publications on 22 May, and the police blocked distribution of The Nation. The minister justified his decision by the "potentially harmful" nature of the two titles for "public order". The Nation reached an agreement with the authorities and was allowed to go back into print. On 31 August Judge Jacobus Annandale lifted the ban on The Guardian. Financially weakened after a four-month suspension, The Guardian promised to "carry on there where [it had] stopped".
By signing decree N°2/2001 on 22 June, the Swazi king strengthened his powers over the press. The law gave the "minister concerned" the authority to ban a publication without "stating the reason" and without any court proceedings. The decree also removed any possibility of being released on bail in case of "disturbance of public order" or threat to state security. In late July the king revoked the decree but reaffirmed his attachment to a 1993 law suspending parole for certain press offences.
On 29 October Lunga Masuku and Bheki Matsebula, correspondents in Swaziland for South African newspapers, were briefly detained by police in the high court buildings in Mbabane. The two men were covering the trial of an opposition leader accused of organising banned demonstrations. Their notes were confiscated.
In early November Lunga Masuku, Thulani Mthethwa and Bheki Matsebula, all correspondents for British and South African media, were warned by the police not to write negative articles about the country and especially about the king. Shortly before that several Johannesburg newspapers had published reports on the king’s future wife and on the death of one of his bodyguards.
King Mswati III has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders