Swaziland is the African continent’s last absolute monarchy. Mswati III has reigned over one of the continent’s smallest countries since 1986. All important decisions were taken by the king himself. The news media were no exception and journalists knew they could not overstep the limits. There was much self-censorship and many subjects were still taboo in 2002.
The king was nonetheless at the centre of the news. His private life, especially his relations with his nine wives, were of the utmost interest to the local newspapers and those of neighbouring South Africa. In 2001, the king even set up his own television station, Channel S, to show that his regime was democratic and respected human rights. Its offices were raided by police in October after it screened a report deemed too critical of the king. Any hint of independence at Channel S was immediately reined in by the authorities.
A journalist murdered
Zweli Mabila, a sports journalist with the state-owned daily The Swazi Observer, was stabbed by unidentified persons as he was returning home from work in Mbabane on 23 October. He died from his injuries the next morning. The motive for the killing remained unknown. He was the third journalist from the newspaper to be killed in a year. At the end of 2002, no information had come to light to suggest that their deaths were linked to their work as journalists.
Pressure and obstruction
The trial of the regime’s leading opponent Mario Masuku for "sedition" resumed on 4 February 2002 after a break of 10 days. Journalists were allowed to attend because a judge thought that a trial behind close doors would do the Mbabane high court harm, reversing the government’s decision a few days earlier to exclude the press. Nonetheless, the prosecutor warned the press not to print the details of the charges against Masuku to avoid repeating the crime. Masuku was accused of calling for revolution and the end of King Mswati’s rule. He was acquitted in mid-August.
Parliamentarians at the end of May publicly criticised Veli Simelane, the presenter of a popular radio talk-show on the state-owned Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services (SBIS), for allowing listeners who phoned in to say on the air that three police officers had recently committed suicide. The police said they were killed by criminals.
Thulani Mthethwa, a former journalist with the Guardian and a stringer for several international news media who has written on government corruption, was searched at a border post on his return from South Africa on 23 July. He said the police looked for firearms and subversive documents. Thereafter, the authorities kept him under surveillance.
Police raided the home of Bheki Mazibuko, a journalist with the state-run TV station, early in the morning of 30 August in an unsuccessful search for firearms. Mazibuko thought the raid was prompted by his reporting of meetings organised by opposition groups. Correspondents for foreign news media who were suspected by the authorities of working for pro-democracy groups also claimed that the police tapped their telephones. Some were even prevented from attending national ceremonies for "security reasons."
Police armed with a court order raided Channel S, the country’s only privately-owned TV channel, on 3 October and confiscated the video recording of a sermon by a local Protestant pastor that was deemed by the authorities to have threatened the "kingdom’s foundations." Alluding to the traditional festivity of Incwala, Pastor Justice Dlamini had said some of the country’s cultural practices were "impious." The king is the central figure in Swaziland’s Incwala ceremonies.
Journalists Phinda Sihlongonyane, Ackel Zwane and Thabile Mdluli of The Swazi Observer, their driver Jethro Jele and Simon Jele, a foreign freelance reporter, were briefly detained by police and prevented from attending a conference organised by various political and civil society groups on 12 October. Called "Justice for Peace," the conference was held to commemorate families expelled from the southeastern Macetjeni region in October 2000.