On 8 and 9 February 2016 the pro-democracy movement in Swaziland converged at the High Court in Mbabane to attend a hearing on the constitutionality of the country’s two draconian and repressive laws – the Suppression of Terrorism Act No. 3 of 2008 (STA) and the British colonial era 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (Sedition Act) – which continue to be used by the state to stifle opposition and silence critics of the authoritarian monarchy.
Many, especially those outside Africa’s last absolute monarchy, had labelled this hearing as ‘historic’ but local activists remained less optimistic knowing that most of the country’s judges have sold their independence for thirty pieces of silver. The King’s influence in the appointment of judges has seriously undermined the independence of the judiciary. The Constitution of Swaziland provides that the judges are appointed by the King after consultation with the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Judges are answerable to the King and hence they can never claim to be independent. It will only take rabid denialists and anarchists to argue that there is hope of an independent judiciary in Swaziland under the current system.
The recent arrest and imprisonment of The Nation magazine editor, Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer and the magazine’s columnist for contempt of court, while shocking the world, has exposed the government’s malevolent desire to suppress freedom of expression and crash dissent.
The two, who were arrested after publishing articles questioning the detention without trial of a government vehicle inspector, have subsequently been sentenced to an effective two years in prison.
Swaziland’s Constitution of 2005 clearly provides for freedom of expression in section 24. It stipulates that every person has a right of freedom of expression and opinion. Harassment, torture, incarceration of journalists or any other attempts to suppress free speech is a violation of this constitutionally guaranteed right.
The incarceration of the two is not an isolated incident but rather a highlight of the repressive regime’s longstanding intention to suppress freedom of expression. To understand Swaziland’s lack of freedom of expression it is important to look into the country’s media landscape. The government has maintained a tight grip on the media so as to control the information being disseminated while the few ‘independent’ media outlets have been constantly attacked leading to unprecedented levels of self-censorship.