Politics | Media
One year since Swaziland's "Afrol affair"
afrol News, 25 February - This week marks the one-year anniversary of the "Afrol affair" in Swaziland, as Swazi media were obliged to apologise to King Mswati III over a reprinted news story originating from afrol News. According to media analysts, the apology and retraction of the "insulting" news story caused a big blow to press freedom in the authoritarian kingdom.
On 18 March 2007, the 'Times of Swaziland Sunday' carried a story from afrol News about the findings of a recent study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that included the afrol News editors' analysis of the IMF evaluation. The analysis criticised the Swazi government and King for excessive spending on any issue not related to tackle the poverty, AIDS and droughts plaguing the Swazi population. After pressure, the 'Times' issued an apology on 22 March, and the 'Times Sunday' issued the same apology on 25 March.
The original IMF study summarised the 2006-07 economic situation of Swaziland. It concluded that Swaziland has very low GDP growth due to "a substantial real appreciation of the lilangeni during 2002-04, erosion of trade preferences, recurrent drought, and stagnant investment." While the IMF report did not mention the King or the royal family, it did refer to "rising government expenditures" as one source of the problem. The afrol News analysis went into this issue, which was understood as a rather sharp criticism by the typically very diplomatic IMF reports.
The analysis thus intimated that the problems facing Swaziland, which the IMF were referring to, stemmed from "poor governance, corruption and the private spending of authoritarian King Mswati III and his large royal family." It also stated that there was a "lessening interest of donors to support King Mswati's regime." This analysis leaned on afrol News' previous reporting on Swaziland and referred to well-known incidents and trends.
This analysis was reprinted by the 'Times of Swaziland Sunday'. The 'Times' is known as the most independent media in Swaziland, a country where most of the press is controlled by government and where "independent" media only survive when practicing self-censorship. The 'Times' since 2001, thus part of a Southern Africa media network, has had the right to freely republish afrol News articles and analyses.
The 'Times', also the most sold Swazi newspaper, has been in constant trouble with royal authorities, leading it to censor its reporting. Also the controversial afrol News article was significantly censored by the 'Times'. The original article goes on to say this: "There is little confidence in Swaziland's future as long as long-awaited democratic reforms are not carried out. Investors and donors expect that a revolution may be around the corner and prefer to do their deals with the next, democratic rulers of Swaziland." This was not reprinted by the 'Times'.
Still, the article caused government fury. King Mswati III himself demanded a retraction and an excuse from the 'Times' publisher. Otherwise, he threatened, the independent media house "African Echo", the group that owns the 'Times', would be shut down.
'Time' publisher Paul Loffler and the managing editor were faced with an ultimatum. They thus did not wait long to publish an apology, stating that the article was "disparaging to the person of His Majesty in its content, greatly embarrassed him and should not have" been published.
Media analysts deplored the quick and total apology by the Swazi editor. The influential Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) held that the "Times of Swaziland fail[ed] the Swazi people," claiming the last independent newspaper in the Kingdom had "given up the fight for media freedom. This is a great disservice to the Swazi people," it added.
In its monitoring of the media freedom and freedom of expression environment in Swaziland, MISA Swaziland during the last years increasingly has reported on attempts by the palace to curtail independent reporting by media through sheer intimidation. The press freedom group held that the "interactions between a Head of State and the publisher of the country’s main newspaper" in the affair one year ago was "evidence of major editorial interference."
MISA said the issues raised in the controversial article should be "a matter of debate for the public and economists in Swaziland," adding that the newspaper was "obliged" to inform the public about the analysis made.
The warnings issued by MISA in March 2007 only partly have proven to fulfil. The 'Times' still remains the most independent media of Swaziland, still "crossing the line" of freedom tolerated by the royal government when deemed necessary to inform the people. Equally, government attacks and interference have not decreased.
On 27 January this year, the 'Times' again revealed excessive personal spending by the government as Prime Minister Themba Dlamini took his pastor with him when he went on a government-paid trip to the Bahamas. Two days after, the 'Times' had "a grovelling front page apology to the Prime Minister, the Swazi Cabinet and just about everybody else," according to the 'Swaziland Media Commentary'.
By Rainer Chr. Hennig
© afrol News
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