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A REPORT FOR THE MEDIA INSTITUTE OF SOUTHERN AFRICA – SWAZILAND CHAPTER
WRITTEN BY RICHARD ROONEY, UNIVERSITY OF SWAZILAND
ABSTRACT This research project concludes that there is widespread censorship in newsrooms in Swaziland. It highlights seven main areas where this censorship is manifest. A total of 16 media practitioners were interviewed and asked to identify how much censorship existed in Swaziland. They were then questioned about their own personal experiences of censorship. The research offers both quantitative and qualitative evidence to support its conclusions. The Swazi monarchy and the poor state of the Swazi economy are identified as the main causes of censorship in Swaziland.
About the author Richard Rooney is associate professor and head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the university of Swaziland, Kwaluseni. He has published many academic research articles in books and journals across the world. Most recently he has published research on Swaziland media and governance, the Swazi Constitution and media freedom, and media regulation in Swaziland in the 21st century. Before coming to Swaziland, Rooney taught in universities in England and Papua New Guinea. He was a journalist in the UK for fifteen years and his journalism has appeared in more than 60 publications. Rooney publishes the weblog, Swazi Media Commentary, at www.swazimedia.blogspot.com
There is a long history of censorship of the media in Swaziland. Some of this censorship we know about because it has become public in some way. But there is suspicion that a lot of censorship is taking place that we do not know about. There have been unsubstantiated reports about the existence of censorship, be it imposed or self-censorship, in newsrooms in the kingdom. Journalists themselves, when defending themselves in various forums against accusations of sub-standard journalism and lack of investigative journalism in Swazi media, have often complained of censorship in newsrooms. The African Media Barometer Swaziland report published by MISA in 2007 also highlights the fact that censorship may exist in newsrooms in Swaziland. It states: ‘Self-censorship is common across all media. There are four key areas where the media exercise self-censorship: the monarchy and traditional authorities, culture, media owners and advertisers.’ MISA’s vision is of a southern African region in which the media enjoy freedom of expression independent from political, economic and commercial interests and a region where members of society, individually or collectively, are free to express themselves through any media of their choice without hindrance of any kind. In pursuit of this vision, MISA Swaziland seeks to advocate against any form of censorship in newsrooms in Swaziland. Therefore, the objectives of this research are to: 1. Establish if censorship exists in newsrooms; 2. Establish the scale of censorship prevailing; 3. Identify the forms of censorship prevailing and its possible causes. It is hoped that the findings of the research will help MISA Swaziland chapter to develop an effective strategy against any form of newsroom censorship. An interview format and questionnaire were used in the research. These had two main objectives. One was to try to quantify how much (if any) censorship was taking place in the media and Swaziland. The other was more qualitative. If censorship existed the research wanted to be able to collect real examples of what media practitioners identify as censorship. As a guide two definitions were given to respondents at the start of the interview. These definitions were as follows.
4 Censorship Censorship is the suppression of speech or deletion of material which may be considered objectionable, harmful or sensitive, as determined by someone outside of your organisation (i.e. imposed by a censor). Self-censorship Self-censorship is the act of censoring one’s own work out of fear or deference to the sensibilities of others (e.g. advertisers, government, media owners) without an authority directly pressuring one to do so. This research report is divided into six sections. Section one: gives a brief overview of the media landscape in Swaziland, highlighting its relatively small size and the dominance of the state in broadcast media. Section two: gives a brief historical perspective of censorship in Swaziland. There is a long inglorious history and doing justice to its detail would require a report of book length. To give the reader a flavour of the situation, some notable ‘highlights’ from the year 2007 are given. Section three: outlines the methods used in the gathering of information. The researcher used structured interviews with 16 media practitioners and in this way generated both quantitative data and information about personal experiences of censorship. Section four: offers the data collected. It proves to the satisfaction of the researcher that there is censorship in Swaziland and that it is widespread. Section five: presents the experiences of the practitioners. It is intended to add texture to the raw data presented in section four. Respondents talk candidly about their experiences both of imposed censorship and selfcensorship. Section six: concludes the report and contends that the monarchy and the financial poverty of Swaziland are the two main causes of censorship in Swaziland.
SECTION ONE: THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE IN SWAZILAND
For those unfamiliar with the media landscape in Swaziland, this section gives a brief overview. Swaziland is a small, relatively poor country, and it follows that the media industry is also small and lacking in finances. The majority of Swaziland’s broadcasting news media are state controlled. There are two free-to-air television stations in Swaziland, the Swazi TV and Channel Swazi. Swazi TV is the state broadcaster and still dominates airwaves. Two acts of parliament have resulted in a monopoly by state owned radio and television. Broadcast licensing is the prerogative of Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications, which has the sole authority to issue licenses. Swazi TV has one channel with multiple national repeaters. The government allowed Channel Swazi, a pro-establishment medium, to begin operating domestically in 2001. King Mswati III supported Channel S, to show that his regime was democratic and respected human rights, but its offices were raided by police 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. There are two radio broadcasters in Swaziland: the Swaziland Broadcasting and Information Services (SBIS) and Voice of the Church, a private Christian radio station which is a local franchise of TransWorld Radio. Voice of the Church is the only privately owned radio station in Swaziland. The SBIS is a state-run national radio service with one siSwati language channel, one English-language channel, and one information services channel. There are two principal players in the newspaper sector that have been in control for the past 35 years. The first is the Loffler family based in Namibia that owns African Echo, the holding company of the Times of Swaziland (published weekdays), Swazi News (published Saturday) and the Times Sunday. These newspapers, the first of which, the Times, was established in 1897, are the only major news sources in the kingdom free of government control. The second major player is the corporation Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, which is controlled by the Swazi Royal Family and owns the Observer Media Group, which publishes the Swazi Observer and its companion, the Weekend Observer. One independent monthly comment magazine, the Nation magazine, manages to continue publishing despite government opposition and a small circulation. A free government produced newssheet, Swaziland Today has very little credibility.
6 SECTION TWO: CENSORSHIP IN SWAZILAND - BACKGROUND
The media are not free in Swaziland and dissenting journalists face harassment if they try to report on matters deemed unacceptable by ruling elites in the kingdom. There are a number of cases in the past when newspapers and magazines have been closed down for transgressing these rules. Individual journalists have also lost their jobs or have had their careers stunted for showing dissent. There is not enough space in this present research report to detail the many cases of censorship that have taken place in recent years, but to give an insight into the problem, here are some examples from the year 2007, as published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa in So This is Democracy 2007? The State of Media Freedom in Southern Africa. The Swazi House of Assembly set up a Select Committee to investigate Mbongeni Mbingo, the editor of the Times Sunday, following a commentary piece he wrote in his newspaper criticising the House Speaker for not allowing a debate to take place on possible amendments to the kingdom’s Constitution. He was cleared. The Swazi Parliament increased the existing fines on journalists and media houses who published articles deemed to be critical of or offending against Parliament or MPs. MISA Swaziland called these measures blatant discrimination ‘likely to scare the already docile Swazi press which cannot freely report on issues due to a litany of restrictions, laws and constant intimidation from authorities.’ The Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Njabulo Mabuza, banned health workers from talking to the media in response to a number of stories that had been published highlighting the impact in the kingdom of a critical drug shortage. The Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers was forced into publishing an abject apology to King Mwasti III after the Times Sunday ran a news commentary sourced from the international news agency Afrol News which blamed the King for many of the kingdom’s economic ills. The publisher was summoned to the Royal Palace and told to issue a public apology or his newspapers would be closed down. The apology was swiftly forthcoming. King Mswat III’s chief executive officer Bheki Dlamini barred journalists at a press conference from asking the King questions relating to the recentlyformed Swaziland Police Union, whose formation had shaken the Swazi establishment.
7 SECTION THREE: METHODS USED IN THE RESEARCH A total of 14 current Swazi journalists and two former Swazi journalists undertook structured interviews. Practitioners within the media industry were asked to volunteer their time to take part in the research but some declined. The sample, therefore, is selfselected. Interviews took place during April 2008. Of the total 16 respondents, 15 were from the print media and one was a former radio journalist. It is perhaps not surprising that those who declined to be interviewed in a research project about censorship were mainly from the state-controlled broadcasting sector in Swaziland. One incident during the research process sheds some light on state broadcasting in Swaziland. One senior journalist at state-controlled SBIS radio agreed to meet with the researcher but then declined to be interviewed. The journalist said permission would need to be sought from the management of the radio station before an interview would be forthcoming. Even though the interview was seeking the personal experiences of those who were being questioned, and not statements on behalf of the media organisation, the journalist felt unable to take part without the expressed permission of seniors. The researcher was directed to also seek the permission of the Minister of Public Services and Information before making further requests of SBIS. The researcher declined the invitation and subsequently nobody from SBIS was interviewed. This encounter speaks volumes about the state of censorship at SBIS. Of the 16 respondents, 11 had the rank of news editor or above, four were reporters and one was a self-described ‘media activist.’ It is unfortunate that of the 16 respondents, only one was a woman. This does not reflect the general gender balance within the Swazi media, which is closer to a ratio of 50:50, especially among junior ranks. The majority of those taking part had already achieved lengthy careers in Swazi journalism and had experience working at one or more media houses. Swaziland is not a democracy and some people have genuine fears of victimisation if they express themselves on controversial matters. For this reason all information was given to the researcher on the condition of anonymity. Before interviews began, some respondents expressed concerns that they would be able to be identified from the specific examples of censorship practice they gave.
8 This is a genuine concern and therefore special care had to be taken in writing the narrative of this report and in some instances detail has deliberately been deleted or obscured to protect the source. All interviews were recorded on the understanding that once the interview was transcribed the recording would be wiped.
9 SECTION FOUR: RESEARCH FINDINGS During the interviews, respondents were asked to comment on a variety of questions and asked to give a response to each in terms of whether the incident at the centre of the question happened ‘often’, ‘sometimes’ or, ‘never’. This section gives the responses to these questions in four tables of data. This is essentially a ‘quantitative’ approach to try to measure how often imposed censorship or self-censorship is (or is not) taking place.
n = 16 1. To your own knowledge does your organization get ordered by someone outside of your organisation not to pursue or publish a story that was deemed to be newsworthy? 2. Have you yourself been ordered not to write newsworthy stories? 3. To your own knowledge do journalists in your news organization deliberately self-censor particular stories that are newsworthy by not writing them at all? 4. To your own knowledge do journalists in your news organization tone down or avoid certain angles in a newsworthy story? 5. Have you ever toned down/avoided certain angles of a newsworthy story?
The questions in Table 1 asked respondents to use their own personal knowledge when answering. They were discouraged from giving anecdotal evidence about what they had heard from other people. In Table 1 questions 1 and 2 refer to examples of imposed censorship. Questions 3, 4 and 5 refer to examples of self-censorship. Table 1 reveals that high levels of imposed censorship and self-censorship operate in Swazi media houses. In Table 1 we can see that in all questions a half or more than a half of the respondents indicated knowledge of censorship or self-censorship. On imposed censorship a total of 10 out of 16 respondents said their organisation was ordered by someone outside of the organisation not to pursue or publish a story that was deemed newsworthy ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’. A total of eight respondents had personally been ordered not to write a newsworthy story.
The questions (3, 4 and 5) on self-censorship suggest that there is a higher level of self-censorship operating in Swazi media houses than imposed censorship. A total of 11 respondents answered ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ to questions about journalists in their own news organisations ‘deliberately’ selfcensoring by not writing a story at all or by toning down certain angles. The same number of respondents said they had personally toned down or avoided certain angles in newsworthy stories. A total of half the respondents (8) said they ‘often’ toned down or avoided certain angles.
TABLE 2 (Self-censorship) To your knowledge how often do journalists in Swaziland (not necessary only at your own news organization) avoid newsworthy stories or angles in stories because of: Often Some Never No n = 16
(i) Fear of offending/damaging advertisers (ii) Need to protect financial interests of news organisation (iii) Fear of libel suits (iv) Fear of offending government/MPs or public bodies (v) Fear of offending monarchy (vi) Fear of breaking cultural taboos (vii) Fear of offending news organization owner(s) (viii) Fear of offending friends/associates of owners and / or editors (ix) Fear of damaging journalist’s career (x) Fear of alienating a source(s)
5 7 10 2 13 5 6 4 2 2
10 4 4 4 3 5 1 4 5 9
1 4 1 8 0 6 8 8 9 5
0 1 1 2 0 0 1 0 0 0
The questions in Table 2 were about self-censorship and asked respondents to use their own personal knowledge when answering. They were discouraged from giving anecdotal evidence about what they had heard from other people. Respondents were particularly asked to think not only of their own news organisation, but what they personally knew of other news organisations in Swaziland. Of the ten scenarios offered the following scored higher in the ‘never’ column than in the ‘often’ and ‘sometimes’ columns combined. This suggests that these categories are far less important factors in self-censorship.
11 (iv) Fear of offending government/MPs or public bodies (vii) Fear of offending news organization owner(s) (ix) Fear of damaging journalist’s career
Table 3 rearranges the results of Table 2 as a log table to see which of the reasons offered were more likely to result in self-censorship. Where there is a tie between the reasons the reason with the more respondents answering ‘often’ is placed higher. TABLE 3 (Self-censorship) Category n = 16 (v) Fear of offending monarchy (i) Fear of offending/damaging advertisers (iii) Fear of libel suits (ii) Need to protect financial interests of news organisation (x) Fear of alienating a source(s) (vi) Fear of breaking cultural taboos (viii) Fear of offending friends/associates of owners and / or editors
Number Of respondents
16 15 14 11 11 10 8
Table 3 shows the main causes of self-censorship. Every respondent said self-censorship took place because there was a fear of offending the Swazi monarchy. Of these 13 said this happened ‘often’. This was by far the largest number of respondents indicating ‘often’. The next highest were the 10 respondents indicating a fear of libel suits. The questions in Table 4 were about imposed censorship and asked respondents to indicate from a list of choices how often groups ‘influence or try to influence decisions about which stories to run at your news organisation’. The choices were cabinet, MPs, government ministries, public bodies, monarchy, traditional leaders, advertisers, media owners / parent companies, individual businesspersons, civil society organisations and religious formations. Of this list of 11 groups only four scored more in the ‘often’ and sometimes’ column combined than the ‘never’ column.
12 TABLE 4 (Imposed censorship) To you own knowledge, how often do the following groups influence or try to influence decisions about which stories to run at your news organization? Often Some Never n = 16
Monarchy Advertisers Media owners/parent companies Individual businesspersons
11 5 2 2
1 7 7 7
4 4 7 7
The results in Table 4 confirm that the main causes of imposed censorship are the monarchy and advertisers. Table 4 also shows that media owners / parent companies try to influence decisions. In the interview with respondents it emerged that the attempts at influence might not be censorship as such, but a more general involvement in day-to-day decision making at the media houses. Owners might be consulted (either at their own insistence or at the editor’s initiative) when there was a story being considered for publication that might be deemed to be problematic in some way. The influence of individual businesspersons tended to be closely linked to their role as advertisers / potential advertisers in the minds of many respondents. The names of two individual business people were given to the researcher as people who did on occasion try to influence the newspapers. One has a very high reputation as a source of news stories and journalists shy away from reporting bad things about him. Another businessperson claims to be close to other influential people in Swazi society who might be able to cause damage to the newspaper if bad reports are published. If we look at Tables 2, 3 and 4 together we can begin to make some general statements about the state of censorship in Swaziland. Fear of monarchy and the power it has over the kingdom and media houses within it is by far the main cause of censorship in Swaziland. This is both censorship imposed by King Mswati III (Table 4) and self-censorship (Tables 2 and 3). The King has threatened to close down titles that offend him and in recent history has done exactly that. There are also high levels of selfcensorship around the King and the Queen Mother, since editors, aware of threats made in the past by the King, do not want to get themselves into trouble. Because of their ownership structure, the Swazi Observer and its companion title, Weekend Observer, are generally accepted to be ‘the King’s newspapers’.
13 The fear of damaging advertisers is real in Swaziland’s failing economy. There is not much money around and every emalangeni that can be gathered from advertisers is vital to the survival of titles. The fear of libel suits does not always relate directly to censorship issues. Respondents spoke about the way that people, aggrieved by what they have read about themselves in the newspapers, will run to lawyers to threaten legal action. Often, they do this to try to intimidate media houses to stop writing about them. Respondents commented about the need to reform the legal system in Swaziland and discourage ‘ambulance chasing’ lawyers from trying to get income from bogus libel actions. Many respondents confused the need to protect the financial interests of their news organisations with a fear of damaging advertisers. When questioned closely on their reasons for answering this category, most respondents confirmed that they had not been pressured in the past to drop stories or tone down angles because of a need to protect the financial interests of their news organisations. A total of 11 respondents said that ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ self-censorship took place to protect sources. When questioned it emerged that source protection was not a major issue with media houses because the occasions when sources got into trouble and wanted their names kept out of the media were not that common. Respondents touched on issues regarding sources that were not totally about censorship, but rather ethical issues about how much a news organisation had to rely on sources and how this reliance was negotiated in practical terms. Most respondents said they did not worry about breaking cultural taboos, except when the taboo concerned the activities of the monarchy, for example during the annual Reed Dance ceremony or Incwala. It is this link to the monarchy that makes respondents choose the ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ option when answering this category. The question regarding fear of offending friends and associates of editors proved problematic, because many of the respondents themselves had the rank of ‘editor’. Four respondents said there was ‘often’ avoidance of such people and four said ‘sometimes’. On further questioning it emerged that what many were considering was not necessary ‘friends’ of the editors or owners, but more generally people in powerful positions in Swaziland who might have a ‘direct line’ to editors and owners to make complaints about the journalist should the journalist do something to offend. This category exposed a more general problem that journalists face in Swaziland and that is the kingdom is so small that ‘everybody knows everybody else’ and you cannot be sure how close a relationship the person you are talking to has to your boss.
14 SECTION FIVE: WHAT THE RESPONDENTS SAID This section presents some of the comments respondents made during the interview. It is intended to put some ‘flesh’ onto the bare bones of the quantitative analysis presented in section four. The interview was intended to draw out from respondents some real examples of imposed censorship and self-censorship in Swazi media houses. During the interviews, respondents were constantly reminded to give only evidence about matters that they personally knew about and not to offer hearsay evidence. It must be remembered that what follows were comments made by respondents and the researcher cannot check the veracity of the statements made. It is assumed that the comments were made in good faith and they are reproduced here in the same manner. This section has been divided into sub sections, which follow closely the questions used in Table 1 and Table 2. Being ordered to drop a story There are varied experiences of this. Most examples concerned the King, but there were also examples that centred around happenings at large companies. There seemed to be general agreement that all media houses had procedures in place for decisions about what could and could not be published to be made. The editor usually makes the decision, supported if circumstances demand, by the editorial board and / or chief officer or publisher. All decisions made seemed to respondents to be transparent and clearly communicated to staff. There was less agreement with state-owned media, where government could have an input. The decision making process in such circumstances is less transparent. In such media houses self-censorship by senior and junior journalists may be more prevalent (journalists learn early in their careers what will and what will not be acceptable within their news organisations). Self-censorship by reporters There were various experiences here. Senior editorial staff said this never happened. The procedure would be that reporters would tell their editor what stories they were working on and the editors would decide whether to pursue them or not. One respondent went so far as to say that if a reporter were found to be hiding a story from an editor that reporter would be fired.
15 Some reporters detected written and unwritten editorial policies about what would and would not be published. Some reporters do not write stories they believe would not be in line with editorial policy. Editors sometimes ‘tone down’ stories that are submitted by reporters. An example would be with political ‘progressives’ and some MPs. As an example, this toning down might concentrate on statements they had made about conditions in Swaziland or members of the monarchy. Stories that editors feel have the potential to incite readers are toned down. Comments that suggest ‘down with the monarchy’ are removed from stories. Other stories that are toned down include ones about how ‘fed up’ Swazi people are with conditions in Swaziland. One respondent believed ‘we would have civil strife by now’ if such stories were not censored. Stories containing comparisons between the lavish lifestyles of the King and ordinary people (or more generally the rich and the poor) in Swaziland are also censored. These might include references to the King having ‘too many luxury cars’. Some toning down also takes place with other stories about royalty. One respondent recalled that a story about members of royalty seen out shopping was submitted to a newspaper. It contained comments from shop assistants about what was purchased. These were removed. Journalists can have an exaggerated sense of patriotism and do not report on some things, according to one respondent. The respondent recalled an occasion when a reporter returned from covering a story and did not hand in a written report and prepared to go home for the day. When the reporter was questioned about this, he said ‘I can’t write the story, the country will burn.’ His editorial manager replied, ‘Come back inside, let’s burn it.’ The story appeared, but the country did not burn. Monarchy Fear of offending the monarchy is by far the biggest cause of censorship in Swazi media houses. Respondents returned time and again to the consequences to the journalist and the media house of offending King Mswati III. One respondent said, ‘The biggest problem in Swazi journalism is the King – who everybody tries to avoid.’ One problem identified by a respondent was the rule that ‘you don’t criticise the King’. This led people to try to extend this to say you cannot criticise a cabinet minister, because the King appoints him and to criticise a cabinet
16 minister, ‘indirectly you criticise the King’ for making a bad appointment. According to the respondent, ‘It took a long time before media houses decided it doesn’t work like that.’ One respondent related this example of how the King interfered. ‘The King himself told us he is not happy with us reporting on how he is spending his money and how his wife was buying clothes. So any time a story to that effect comes through we generally don’t venture into that area. So [he made] one order and it has stood for a long time.’ Orders to media houses sometimes come directly from the King (rather than from someone on behalf of the King). It would seem that these summons are not made consistently across the media. The Times group seems to have been called more often than the Observer. Many respondents referred to an incident in March 2007 when King Mswati III ordered the Times Sunday to publish an apology for publishing an article sourced from Norway that said the King was partly responsible for Swaziland’s economic ills. The King also demanded that the features editor of the Times Sunday be dismissed for allowing the report to be published. The King also said that the newspaper must never again refer to him as a ‘dictator’ (even though the report did not use this word). The King said if his demands were not met he would close down the Times Sunday and the other newspapers published by its owner. A summary of comments by respondents on the incident suggests that the publisher went along with the King’s demands because the publisher did not want to take the risk of not knowing what would follow if he did not apologise. So for a quiet life, the publisher did what he was told. Another example, generally known in the media industry and cited by some respondents, concerned the King’s first daughter (who was of adult age) who willingly gave a media interview that the King did not like. The King summoned journalists to see him and demanded to hear a recording of the interview as proof that the interview really did take place. The King then told the media that they would not be allowed to interview her again without the King’s expressed permission. Swazi media have interpreted this dictate to mean that they may not interview any of the King’s children. Another example cited was a report about one of the King’s wives going to Matsapha airport to see off her daughter who was going on a trip. The King was ‘livid’ when the report appeared and made his feelings known to the media. He said the report had embarrassed him. According to one respondent, the problem the media face now is what do they do the next time the Queen is seen in public? If they report it, the King might be offended and give them trouble. ‘So we don’t, we don’t want trouble.’
There are some areas about the royal family that are not covered by newspapers, either because of direct censorship (i.e. King Mswati III has said they must not) or through self-censorship (media houses fear the consequences of upsetting the King). One topic cited by respondents as being off limit was the national budget where it relates to the royal expenditure. King Mswati III in effect owns the Observer and Weekend Observer newspapers and there is ‘an extra sensitivity’ at these newspapers when reporting about the King and royalty. It is generally accepted throughout Swazi media that the Observer is ‘the King’s newspaper’. The person who at any time holds the position of ‘chief editor’ of the Observer group is the person who would tackle royal assignments. One respondent described one of the chief editor’s responsibilities as being to protect the ‘good standing’ of the royal family. The Observer would also try to ‘correct the misconception’ that the King had a lavish lifestyle. This situation seems to be generally recognised by the Swazi media – both inside and outside of the Observer group. A summary of respondents’ views in this area suggests that the Observer will not report things that put the King and the Queen Mother in a ‘bad light’ or publish something that ‘ridicules’ them. Among topics that will not be published are reports of the activities of political ‘progressives’ and the things they say during their demonstrations. The Observer might report that there had been a rally and it might say police broke it up, but it would not report details of the purpose of the demonstration. The Observer also shies away from using the term ‘the ruling class’ in stories, unless readers confused the term to mean ‘the King’. The Observer will not publish stories that embarrass the King. One example cited by many respondents was a car crash the King was involved in. The story was published on the front page of the Times of Swaziland, on 2 April 2008, but not published at all in the Observer. It was thought that publishing the report would offend His Majesty. The Observer will not report on the issue of polygamy as this may be interpreted as a criticism of the King (who has 13 wives). The Observer would not give advance reports of the King’s activities, for example, a trip abroad, unless the King’s office had officially announced it. To publish information known to the newspaper, but not officially announced by the King, would be deemed ‘disrespectful’ to the King.
18 Away from the Observer, arguments sometimes take place within media houses about how far they can go when reporting about the King. Caution usually wins. Some journalists say they would prefer to see how far they can go and ‘take a chance’.
Advertisers and financial interests of organisations The threat of losing advertising is real, this is especially so as the economy of Swaziland is declining. The privately owned media is dependent on advertising to survive, and since a small number of organisations spend so much the media houses give serious consideration every time there is a complaint from an advertiser. Some advertisers are so important to the newspapers that a special relationship exists between the advertiser and the advertising department. The advertising department knows that some advertisers will never say ‘no’ when approached to advertise. For example, if a newspaper is running a special themed advertising supplement, it might approach a regular advertiser to support it. If the advertiser has already spent the annual advertising budget, an advertisement would still be placed and the advertisement paid for at a later date, when funds are available to the advertiser. A number of companies and organisations were specifically cited as organisations that regularly tried to censor the content of newspapers. They were Swazi Bank; the cellphone company, MTN (‘a definite no-go area’ and ‘you can’t write about blackouts in the service’); the Swaziland Electricity Company and Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications (SPTC). All the foregoing are major companies or parastatals in Swaziland. But smaller companies are also given special treatment. One such company that was mentioned more than once by respondents was the Why Not (a recreation and entertainment venue). In the case of the Why Not, respondents said they did not even feel able to publish a poor review of an act that appeared at the venue, for fear of losing advertising. Although media houses will keep stories about advertisers out of the media there is a limit to what they will not report. For example, one respondent said they would publish a story if a chief officer of an advertiser were accused of rape. Newspapers do not fear the withdrawal of advertising by government, although, according to the African Media Barometer, published by MISA, this has happened in the past. It is felt that government has little choice but to use the newspapers in order to get information out to the general public (although state-controlled radio, SBIS is also available for this). One respondent said that in the past when the government did withdraw advertising it was done by one small part of government and the ban lasted about one week.
19 There was a minority view that advertisers did not cause problems for media houses because they understood that newspapers had a duty to publish. Advertisers were satisfied if the media house gave the advertiser a platform to give its side of the story. Libel Many respondents reported that hardly a day went by without somebody threatening to sue them in order to ‘scare them off’. A letter from a lawyer often accompanied these threats. There was a general feeling that some people who claimed that they had been libelled by the media were ‘trying it on’ to get the media house to agree on an apology and costs before the case got to court. The great time delay in getting cases to court could intimidate media houses. One respondent said a case could take up to two years before it went to court. Another said that lawyers, acting like ‘ambulance chasers’, tried to keep a case going as long as they could. This guaranteed the lawyer an income, when lawyers had very few other opportunities to earn. Media houses sometimes settled cases, even those where they believed they had not committed a libel, for fear of the huge costs involved. Libel insurance to protect media houses was becoming prohibitively expensive in a climate where claims for libel could be as high as E3 million. This fear of the high cost if a case was lost has led to some stories being dropped or angles in stories being toned down. Media houses often settled out of court to avoid the protracted hassle and possible costs of pursuing a case to court. One respondent said settling out of court was a dangerous move for media houses. ‘Once you settle, you open the floodgates for everybody else.’ Another respondent said, ‘Settling for fear of going to court has reduced the confidence of journalists and lowers the standards of journalism’. This led newspapers to only go for soft targets (people who could not sue) and to leave larger, more important, targets alone. Sources The media protect their own sources by not publishing harmful stories about them, but this protection is not total. Some respondents revealed that they would not publish the story in their own newspaper, but would pass it on to another newspaper in the same media house, for them to follow up. Some respondents admitted to censoring stories about regular sources in order to ensure a future flow of stories from that source. When a regular source wants to keep something out of the media, a certain amount of negotiation takes place. There were a number of examples given
20 where a source – often an official spokesperson for an organisation – offered the media house a ‘juicier’ story in exchange for dropping a story that would reflect badly on the organisation that the journalist was working on. Sources often get their way, and many respondents revealed that they were given ‘better’ stories in exchange. Taboos and cultural traditions Cultural traditions are said to be very important in Swaziland and there exists a duality in the legal system between constitutional law and cultural and traditional law. Despite the apparent importance of culture, most respondents said that they did not allow traditional leaders to interfere with the media’s work. Some respondents said that there are no real cultural traditions in Swaziland. ‘We don’t respect that cultural leaders are sincere,’ one respondent said. Other comments included, ‘To Hell with culture – nobody has authority to challenge us.’ ‘Nobody’s practising culture in our country any more.’ ‘Women in the villages are only doing it for survival, they don’t really give a damn.’ ‘I’m here to break cultural taboos.’ The only area in which culture was respected by the media, concerned the King. There are a number of things that culture dictates cannot be reported about annual ceremonies concerning the King (e.g. the Reed Dance and Incwala) and the media (reluctantly, according to respondents) censored themselves. It was clear from respondents that there were many stories from the Reed Dance and Incwala that were known to the media, that they would like to publish, but did not, for fear of the consequences from the King.
Minority views of respondents This research report has concentrated on those areas where a majority of respondents reported censorship and self-censorship. Among those areas that did not score highly in these terms, there were nonetheless some ‘minority’ experiences that the researcher thought significant enough to include in this final report. Prime Minister The Prime Minister tries to bully the media from time to time. ‘He gets to bully us a lot,’ one respondent said. He will call editors and publishers and make threats about stories that have been published or ones that he knows are about to be published. Swaziland remains a deferential society and there are still some ‘no go’ areas for the media when it comes to government. It is considered disrespectful, for example, to draw a cartoon of the Prime Minister. This limits the possibility to
21 make comment (satirical or otherwise) through political cartooning. The Times of Swaziland is less deferential than the Swazi Observer in this respect. Cabinet Ministers Cabinet ministers tried to do bully journalists in the past, but it is believed by journalists that this happens a lot less these days. One reason for this is thought to be that Swazi society is small and senior journalists will have known present day government ministers when both the journalist and the minister were younger. This means that the journalists are not in awe of the ministers Members of Parliament The media houses do not take notice of members of parliament. The suggestion that media houses might be afraid of MPs elicited derisive laughter from a number of respondents. ‘We can write anything and everything,’ one respondent said. Some MPs try to influence the media by befriending journalists and giving them money or other ‘freebies’. By buying influence this way, the MP expects that the journalists will not write anything bad about them in the future. Civil Society Organisations Civil society organisations do not tend to try to censor news organisations and the media would ignore them if they did. Swazi media houses say they do not take civil society organisations very seriously because many have been involved in internal scandals in the past. Civil society organisations often complain about the lack of accountability and transparency in other organisations, but they are not themselves transparent. Fear for journalist’s own career Generally, there was not a lot of evidence of journalists fearing for their own careers if they wrote or published material that might upset people in power, although there are many public examples of journalists being sacked from their jobs for having written or published something that later caused trouble. The most recent public example of this was the features editor of the Times Sunday who lost his job after an article critical of King Mswati III was published in the newspaper in March 2007. Respondents were reluctant to go into specific detail on this topic. Among some respondents there was a feeling that self-censorship sometimes took place because the journalists were worried about what would happen to them if they displeased their own editors or people in power. One respondent summed it up, ‘If a journalist thinks a story is not safe for him, he won’t do it.’ The main types of story that are avoided are those that touch on the monarchy. In Swaziland many of the royal family’s activities must not be reported. If a journalist transcends what is permissible there is a fear that an order may come down from a ‘faceless’ person ordering the dismissal of the journalist.
22 One respondent, echoing the example of the Times Sunday, said that management can ‘sacrifice’ a journalist to keep the media house out of trouble. ‘You always have that at the back of your mind.’ There are a number of publicly known examples of victimisation of journalists who write or publish things that upset the King or politicians. The consequences for the journalists can include dismissal from their job, a summons to appear before the King, and formal charges from parliament. Some politicians will refuse to speak to journalists because they do not like previous stories that have been published. One method politicians use to get back at print journalists who they feel have offended them is to use the airwaves of state-controlled radio, SBIS. It is common for politicians to be given airtime to criticise the journalists who have written about them in the newspapers. The ‘offending’ journalists are not invited onto the radio station to give their version of events.
SECTION SIX: CONCLUSIONS This research report had three objectives. The primary objective was to establish if censorship existed in newsrooms. If it was found that censorship did indeed exist, two secondary objectives were set. The first was to establish the scale of censorship prevailing. The second was to identify the forms of censorship prevailing and its possible causes. On the primary objective (does censorship exist in newsrooms) the research proves conclusively that it does. Tables 1, 2 and 3 demonstrate in quantifiable terms the existence of censorship (as defined by media practitioners in Swaziland). The second objective (establishing the scale of censorship) is demonstrated in both Table 1 and Table 2. The main conclusions from the evidence here is that censorship exists to a greater or lesser degree around seven defined areas, including the monarchy, advertisers, libel, sources, cultural taboos and the associates of editors. Table 3 is a log table that attempts to rank each of these areas by importance. We should be cautious about being too ‘reductionist’ in this analysis. Not too much should be read into the suggestion that the monarchy ‘scored’ one point more than advertisers and advertisers one more than a fear of libel suits. The manner in which the information was gathered and the thought processes involved in answering the questions, suggests to the researcher that positions in this log table might not be stable and that a similar research undertaken (even with the same participants) sometime in the future might result in slightly different log positions for some categories. What the research can say with some confidence is that when taken as a whole the seven categories that make up Table 3 collectively give an accurate picture of the state of newsroom censorship in Swaziland. So should we attempt to use the analysis in this research to inform ourselves about how to tackle censorship we should not be sidetracked into arguing the log table positions per se. What is important to take away from this analysis is the overall conclusion that there is censorship and that this censorship is widespread. The experiences recounted by practitioners in section five offer ample support for this conclusion. The first part of the third objective (to identify the forms of censorship prevailing) is largely answered under the second objective (above). The second part of the objective (… and its possible causes) leads the researcher to identify two main areas that impact on censorship in Swaziland. The first is the position of the monarchy in a kingdom that is non-democratic. The second is the poor state of the economy and the financial circumstances in which private media in Swaziland must operate. It cannot be overstated that the overwhelming concern of the media houses was its relationship to monarchy. There is ample evidence, both historical and
24 public, that the King can (and will) close down publications if he wishes. This power was demonstrated most recently in March 2007 when a threat was made to the Times Sunday. The media in Swaziland generally take such threats seriously. Because there is a constant fear of retribution from the King, media houses are cautious about what they write about the King and his immediate family. The Swazi Observer and the Weekend Observer are quite open about their relationship with the King and will publish nothing that reflects badly on him. This policy is taken to extremes sometimes as in the case of the car crash in which the King was involved. The Observer did not report the incident because it was felt to do so would ‘offend’ His Majesty (in some undefined, and possibly indefinable, way). This objective attempts also to identify ‘possible causes’ of censorship. In the case of the monarchy, the cause is obvious. The power structure within Swaziland allows the King to close media as he wishes: a power he has used in the past and still threatens to use from time to time. The Swazi Constitution states that there is freedom of the media in Swaziland, but the evidence on the ground suggests this is illusionary. The Constitution was in effect in March 2007 when the King threatened the Times Sunday, but this did not stop the newspaper from capitulating. There may be some hope. Many respondents stated that they would not publish information about the King’s finances (even though it was publicly available in national budget statements), nor would they publish material that suggests that the King’s lifestyle is at variance with the general population in Swaziland. The King himself is also said to have told the Times Sunday directly that it must not call him a ‘dictator’. One magazine in Swaziland has broken these ‘rules’. The Nation magazine has in 2008 published articles that directly challenge the position of the King. The April 2008 edition gave detailed information about the money the King receives from the Swazi taxpayer, through the national budget. It also included a scathing commentary about the gap between the King’s wealth and the general poverty of Swaziland. In June 2008, the Nation published two articles based on the documentary ‘Without The King’, which detailed the grievances that ordinary people in Swaziland have against the King. It also went as close to calling the King ‘a dictator’ as it is possible to go without actually using the word. At the time of writing (June 2008) the Nation has not faced retribution for these articles. This suggests that there might be more scope than the Swazi media generally believe for robust reporting and commentary about the monarch. The second major cause of censorship in Swaziland relates to the economy. It is very difficult to make a profit legally in Swaziland and the media industry
25 recognises this as much as anybody. About 70 percent of Swaziland’s near one million population earn less than E7 per day. They cannot afford to buy newspapers and are generally excluded from the equation when privately owned media houses are making their business plans. Many of the 30 percent of the population who are not officially ‘poor’ are not well off. They have little disposable income to spend after the basic necessities of living are paid for. This means that these people are not attractive to advertisers, for the simple reason that they do not have money to spend on the goods and services that advertisers want to sell. What this means is that there is a very small section of the Swazi population who have enough income to support the private media houses, either by buying the paper or buying goods and services advertised. It follows that there is an extremely small pool of advertisers in Swaziland and there is no evidence that this pool will grow in the short to medium term. Swazi media need every advertiser they can get and this gives a potential power to the advertiser. A threat to withdraw vital funding from the media house has to be taken seriously and this compromises editorial content. One can sympathise with the media house in this regard. The main concern of a privately owned media house (as with any commercial organisation) is to make a profit. Editorial integrity comes a long way behind. When the publisher of the Times Sunday decided to obey the King’s order to apologise about a perfectly legitimate news story (that had been published widely outside of Swaziland), he was almost certainly making a commercial judgement. It is very difficult to ignore the commercial imperative. Media houses will always find it hard to make a profit in Swaziland while the economy remains so poor. In different circumstances, with a thriving economy where advertisers compete in a marketplace for the cash of people with plenty of it to spend, media houses may pick and choose their advertisers. Not so in Swaziland. If Swaziland genuinely believed in a media that was free to report and comment on any matter of public importance there would be available subsidies from the public purse to help finance them. This would allow the media to publish without an over-reliance on advertisers. How this could be achieved in practice is beyond the scope of this present research report. This research report should be viewed as the beginning of a conversation between media practitioners (of all ranks) and the Swazi people. This report concludes that there is a very real problem of censorship in Swaziland, but it does not advocate solutions to the problem, since to do so would be presumptuous of the researcher. The next step is for those who are concerned about the existence of censorship to take up the challenges that this research report implies.
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