Swazi civil society welcomes the repeal of draconian legislation
Self-censorship in Swaziland's limited print media sphere remains very common. On 10th November, it was revealed how daily newspaper the Times of Swaziland censored its content in order to deflect criticism from King Mswati III. On 7th November, the newspaper reported on an International Trade Union Confederation research study called 'King Mswati's gold: workers' rights and land confiscation in Swaziland's sugar sector'. Instead of using the report's official title the paper referred to it as 'Swazi gold' and made no mention of the numerous findings linking the king's companies to human rights abuses in the the sugar cane growing industry. Even in privately-owned media like the Times, self-censorship has become a survival mechanism in what is a hugely constrained environment for freedom of expression. Swaziland's other daily paper, The Swazi Observer is owned by a state company and acts effectively as a mouthpiece for the ruling royal family.
On 16th September, Swaziland's High Court struck down as unconstitutional the notorious Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) and the archaic Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, which dates from 1938. These acts have been some of the main tools used by authorities to suppress countless demonstrations and the legitimate expression of political and social views by civil society activists and political parties in recent years. The court criticised the overbroad and unjustified measures within the STA, which have long attracted criticism for their restrictions on civic freedoms and curtailment of independent dissent. The repeal is a welcome development for civil society in Swaziland, where the courts rarely rule against the government.
Civil society actors and human rights lawyers across Southern Africa received a badly-needed boost from the outcome in this case. The STA was introduced by authorities in 2008 after an attempted bomb attack at a bridge near one of the King's Palaces was viewed by the government as the work of opposition groups. Over the years, the STA and the sedition law were routinely used to detain opposition and civil society activists for prolonged periods of time without trial.
A recent news release by South Africa-based rights group the Southern Africa Litigation Centre noted:
"The Court held that the state respondents in the case has not provided any evidence explaining why the laws – which they admitted infringe the right to freedom of expression – would be justifiable in a democratic society. The Court also emphasised that the rules of natural justice apply to individuals who are members of a so-called terrorist entity."
This is not the end of the battle however, as the government has appealed against the High Court judgement, a move which underscores its ambivalence towards the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.