Government continues unrelenting onslaught on expression

Freedom of expression continues to face a major attack in the continent’s last absolute monarchy. According to Reporters without Borders, criticism of the regime is subject to prosecution and the state wields total control over the media.

Expression

On 25th February 2020, Zweli Martin Dlamini, editor of Swaziland News media outlet was arrested for alleged sedition after police raided his home. They confiscated his laptops, cellphones, hard drives and other electronic devices during the arrest. At the police station he was questioned about two articles he had published earlier that month criticising King Mswati III, while being subjected to ill treatment by suffocation with a bag over his head. He was released six hours later, although none of his devices was returned to him. Dlamini fled to South Africa the following day.

However, on 10th April 2020, his house was raided again by police officers after Swaziland News published an article questioning the king’s health. The officers arrested his wife and confiscated some material including contracts of employees of Swaziland News. Dlamini’s wife was taken to Mbabane police headquarters where she was questioned about her husband’s whereabouts and also subjected to suffocation using a plastic bag over her head and being slapped in the face. 

In separate developments, as part of measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020 the government enacted regulations criminalising willful disinformation about the pandemic. The regulations criminalise publication with the “intention to deceive”, prohibit “spreading rumours or unauthenticated information about COVID-19” and “the use of print or electronic media” for information on COVID-19 “ without the prior permission of the minister of health”.

The regulations were however criticised for being vague and for stifling expression. Critics argued that the standards for determining what constitutes a rumour for instance was unclear. The requirement to obtain permission from the minister of health before publishing information on the pandemic also prevents and discourages public dialogue on COVID-19.

The offences carry fines of up to R20,000 (USD 1,237) or imprisonment for up to five years.