CIVICUS

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Swaziland

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Last updated on 26.01.2018 at 08:00

Swaziland Overview

Civic space in Swaziland is severely restricted, making it one of the most difficult environments for civil society in southern Africa.

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Swaziland: State's heavy-handed suppression of civic space

Swaziland: State's heavy-handed suppression of civic space

The country's government and ruling monarch continue to maintain tight control over citizens' civic freedoms, preventing their free exercise of the rights to association, assembly and expression.

Association

The digital education publication Inside Education reported that police had arrested nine student activists in September 2017, following their participation in a student-led protest organised by the Swaziland National Union of Students. The students were, according to the report, released on warning after securing legal counsel. According to information received by the Monitor, the students were accused of acts of vandalism and looting. The students were subsequently charged and appeared at Malkerns Magistrate’s Circuit Court. Their trial is still pending.

On 8th September, human rights blog Swazi Media Commentary reported that police obstructed a pro-democracy meeting in Mbabane, the capital, with about 100 people in attendance. Police prevented the meeting from taking place, claiming that it had not been authorised. 

Peaceful Assembly

From June to December 2017, a number of protests over various issues took place in Swaziland. Examples of protests include the following:

On 15th June, approximately 1,500 teachers peacefully protesting over salaries were met with police resistance when they attempted to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister's office. A police officer reportedly began to beat the teachers with his baton, according to the Times of Swaziland

In November, electricity workers went on strike over two years of unpaid bonuses. The strike led to power outages throughout the country. 

According to the Africa Times, in September police forcefully removed students protesting over unpaid stipends and other grievances. The protests had allegedly turned violent at the Swaziland College of Technology, with some reports of vandalism and looting. 

On 8th September, thousands of protesters mobilised in Mbabane to demand democratic and socioeconomic reforms. The organisers included main opposition party Swaziland United Democratic Front and the protesters delivered a petition with seven demands to the government.

On 7th September, the University of Swaziland was closed after police and student protesters clashed. The students were boycotting their classes over several issues, including poor food quality and accommodations as well as unpaid stipends. Students reportedly threw stones, while police used batons against protesters. 

Expression

The editor of the newspaper Swaziland Shopping, Zweli Martin Dlamini, reportedly left to South Africa in early January 2018 after receiving death threats. The threats started after Dlamini published an article on King Mswati III's suspect business dealings in the telecommunications industry. 

On 15th December 2017, Swazi Media Commentary reported that the government had denied Swaziland Shopping its license and registration, allegedly due to the newspaper not meeting certain legal requirements. As a result, the newspaper will not longer be able to operate and publish. Media are largely state-controlled in Swaziland and state censorship of media outlets represents a major barrier to press freedom. Media is not free to publish articles critical of the monarchy.

A professor from the University of Swaziland was cited by media in December 2017 after outlining the dire situation faced by journalists in the country at a workshop organised by World Vision. According to the professor, challenges faced by journalists include fear of persecution from the authorities when reporting on controversial or sensitive issues, such as corruption within the government.

According to Swazi Media Commentary, two Swazi TVjournalists' jobs were threatened for covering a protest march on 20th September 2017 by public servants over a zero percent increase in their salaries. The journalists reportedly did not lose their jobs but were given warnings.

Association in Swaziland

Although civil society organisations and trade unions can be formed, government infiltration and denial of registration, or deregistration, is common. Repressive sedition and anti-terror laws are used to target dissidents and human rights activists.

Although civil society organisations and trade unions can be formed, government infiltration and denial of registration, or deregistration, is common. Repressive sedition and anti-terror laws are used to target dissidents and human rights activists. The constitutionality of these laws is currently being challenged in court by human rights organisations, but the judiciary’s lack of independence from the government is likely to undermine these efforts. Since 2012 the government has refused to recognise the national trade union federation – TUCOSWA – although it was finally registered on 12 May 2016. Moreover, the prime minister threatened to ‘strangle’ or ‘discipline’ – using the siSwati word ‘Abakhanywe’ – the federation’s secretary general Vincent Ncongwane, a prominent civil society activist. The prime minister made the threat after Ncongwane participated in a Swaziland democracy protest outside the White House in Washington DC. Political parties remain banned. The People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), the main party operating underground, has been proscribed by government, which views it as a terrorist organisation. Several PUDEMO activists are in jail awaiting trial for a range of offences following recent protests. Government officials often vilify civil society groups, and agents of the state actively undermine efforts to unify the democratic movement in Swaziland.

Peaceful Assembly in Swaziland

Although Swaziland’s constitution provides for this right, people are not freely able to gather in public places. Demonstrations in large urban areas and near the main university campus are rarely allowed to proceed.

Although Swaziland’s constitution provides for this right, people are not freely able to gather in public places. Demonstrations in large urban areas and near the main university campus are rarely allowed to proceed. Tight bureaucratic procedures including prior-approval requirements and close police monitoring keep a lid on many planned protests. In 2014 government refused permission for several protests and marches to take place. Police put protest leaders under house arrest before gatherings commenced and set up cordons on the main access routes to towns, thus preventing the arrival of demonstrators. When protests do occur, police are liberal in their use of batons and tear gas. Torture and arbitrary imprisonment of protestors has been well documented.

Expression in Swaziland

There are no independent daily newspapers in Swaziland. The Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers is privately owned but far from independent as it bows to powerful interests. Nor are there any independent television or radio stations.

There are no independent daily newspapers in Swaziland. The Times of Swaziland Group of Newspapers is privately owned but far from independent as it bows to powerful interests. Nor are there any independent television or radio stations. There is an independent monthly publication, The Nation, with limited circulation. A number of online blogs post information critical of the government, however few Swazis have access to these. People are not free to express their opinions and, should they choose to do so, they risk being harassed by the police, evicted from their land or denied privileges such as jobs or scholarships for their children. Criticising the King is a serious offence for which citizens and journalists face stiff penalties. Defamation is also a criminal offence in Swaziland and is a charge regularly used to shield powerful public officials from allegations of corruption or wrongdoing. In a widely publicised case in 2014, the government jailed a journalist and editor for two years for contempt of court following an article highlighting judicial corruption. The pair spent over 15 months in prison before being released. Many other activists are forced to live in exile in South Africa having been threatened with jail or death for expressing their views openly. While it is possible to access independent news sources via the Internet in Swaziland, by 2014 less than a third of people were online.