SALC’S MEDIA DEFENCE PROGRAMME VISITS SWAZILAND

Salc : Caroline James

Lawyers from SALC’s media defence programme, Justine Limpitlaw, Simon Delaney, and Caroline James, visited Swaziland from 7 to 9 October 2013 to discuss ways in which SALC can support activities to protect freedom of expression in Swaziland.

The Media Defence programme is supporting the African Union Special Rapporteur’s campaign to decriminalise laws that restrict freedom of expression, and is focussing on reforming laws that criminalise defamation, insult, false news and certain aspects of sedition. The support is two-pronged: working with civil society and government officials to effect law reform through parliament; and supporting litigation which challenges the constitutionality of the laws.

As part of the campaign SALC is developing a number of country-specific draft bills to amend the laws that restrict freedom of expression. These bills do not constitute a model law as they deal with each country’s specific laws and legislative provisions that relate to criminal defamation, insult, false news and sedition. In Swaziland a number of organisations and individuals indicated their willingness to work together to ensure a comprehensive draft bill for Swaziland. SALC also met with government representatives, including persons in the Attorney General’s office as well as with newly elected Member of Parliaments in the hope that they might assist in introducing the bill into Parliament.

Meetings with Swazi lawyers, activists, government officials and judicial officers were rather sober as it was emphasised, time and again, just how difficult litigating in Swaziland is – particularly when bringing cases against the government. The government has not lost a case in court since 2009, and a 2011 Directive issued by the Chief Justice prevents the court registrar from registering any cases in which the King is cited.

However, there was a measure of optimism and a sense that, following the September elections, there may be changes in the political climate. A number of progressive Members of Parliament, who hope to create change from within Parliament, were elected. Additionally the Chief Justice is facing impeachment proceedings in his home country, Lesotho, which may have implications for his position in Swaziland. SALC will be a keen observer, following how the new MPs interact in Parliament, as well as any developments in the judiciary.

Supporting local lawyers’ litigation is one of SALC’s main roles in southern Africa, and SALC met with a number of lawyers whose clients have been charged under the Seditious and Subversive Activities Act of 1938. Like the Suppression of Terrorism Act, this Act has been used to suppress internal opposition to the King and government, and the objective of the meetings was to discuss how best SALC can offer support and assistance in these cases.

The visit and variety of meetings allowed for a comprehensive picture of the challenges and opportunities facing SALC as it intensifies work with lawyers and activists in Swaziland. SALC looks forward to deepening its involvement in the country and strengthening relationships with the organisations and lawyers encountered on the trip.

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