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Remembering Swaziland’s prisoners of conscience after one year behind bars

by Zoe Titus

Remembering Swaziland's prisoners of conscience after one year behind bars

Today, 18 March 2015, marks one year in detention for the Swazi magazine editor Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko.

They were convicted of contempt of court on 17 July 2014 in connection with separate articles that appeared in Swaziland’s only independent news magazine, The Nation.

They were sentenced to two years in prison, with no option of a fine.

The Nation and Swaziland Independent Publishers were also fined 50,000 lilangeni (approximately US$4,000) each.

The respective articles were critical of the arrest and detention of government vehicle inspector Bhantshana Gwebu after he impounded a vehicle used by another High Court Judge, Esther Ota.

Judge Simelane, who presided over Makhubu and Maseko’s case, argued that writing these articles amounted to interfering with the administration of justice as the criminal matter was still pending before a court.

Civil society groups have maintained that the duo was legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression when commenting on the conduct of the judiciary.

Their comments did not warrant the contempt of court charges brought against them.

Makhubu and Maseko’s trial was marked by procedural irregularities and violations of their rights, which started with their detention after a closed court hearing on 18 March 2014.

Furthermore, the judge presiding over the case, Judge Simelane, should have recused himself due to his personal involvement in the case mentioned in the articles, but he refused.

 

Repressive environment

This case is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is reflective of the repressive environment in which the media and civil society operate in Swaziland.

There are 32 laws in Swaziland that place restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information.

The government controls most of the national media, and last year Minister for Information, Communication and Technology Dumisani Ndlangamandla declared that national television and radio stations are primarily there to serve the interests of the state, not the people.

The only privately-owned newspaper in Swaziland, the Times of Swaziland, had to defend two lawsuits in 2014, brought against them by current and former politicians.

They settled one case by paying out a sum of 200,000 lilangeni (approximately US$16,200), and in the other were forced to pay out 500,000 lilangeni (US$40,400) in damages in the biggest defamation case in Swaziland’s history.

And it wasn’t just the media who earned the ire of the government in 2014 – Swazi Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini called on union representatives to “strangle” two civil society activists.

One of these, Vincent Ncongwane, the Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland, was later prevented from speaking at a gathering.

In addition to facing legal sanctions, Swazi journalists also operate in a climate of fear for their physical safety.

Last year a Swazi Observer’ journalist was allegedly assaulted by a football club director in front of the paper’s editor. The journalist reported the incident to the police, but no charges were filed.

The Swazi Mirror reported on the incident, but the issue containing the article never made it to newsstands.

There were also reports that police “manhandled” and “detained” high school students protesting a decision by their school administrators.

President of the pro-democracy political party the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) Mario Masuku and the party’s youth leader Maxwell Dlamini were arrested last year after they addressed a crowd at a May Day event.

They face terrorism charges for criticising Swaziland’s absolute monarchy and expressing support for PUDEMO.

They have been remanded in prison since their arrest on 1 May 2014, having had several applications for bail denied.

Meanwhlle, Makhubu and Maseko continue to sit in a prison cell, waiting for their chance to challenge the decision that has for one year denied them their freedom.

Their next hearing was scheduled for May 2015, but at time of writing no date for the hearing has been set. And so they remain in prison, unable to carry on their professions, separated from their families, denied their rights, waiting.

 

Update: on 19 March 2015, Thulani Maseko was placed in solitary confinement following the publication of a letter marking his one year anniversary in prison.

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