Over the past week the world has been reminded of the fragility of media freedom, and the risks many journalists face when reporting the news. Last Monday a court in Egypt sentenced two Al Jazeera journalists to seven years imprisonment, and one to ten years, after finding them guilty of reporting false news following the coup d’etat that removed President Morsi in June 2013. But while the focus of this story has been on the horrific infringement of those journalists’ rights to liberty, security and their own freedom of expression, another case, on the other end of the African continent, highlights the broader danger to society of muzzling the media.
In Swaziland, editor of The Nation magazine, Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer, Thulani Maseko, have been in detention since March after they wrote articles critical of the Swazi judiciary and Chief Justice. They are accused of scandalizing the court, and face imprisonment if found guilty. Their criticism stemmed from the arrest and detention of a government vehicles inspector in February and the articles described how legal principles and practices were dispensed with in that case.
Makhubu and Maseko have suffered similar infringements of their individual rights as the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. Their detention without bail has deprived them of their liberty, and in both cases legal processes and fair trial procedures appear to have been flouted. Their right to freedom of expression – their right to express their opinions and to report on what they see as newsworthy – have been curtailed by the criminal charges that have been brought against them.
The trial in Swaziland demonstrates that when the right to freedom of expression is infringed, it is more than just individual journalists’ individual rights that are affected; the effective functioning of society is compromised. This is because freedom of expression is a right that goes beyond the freedom of individuals to form and express their opinions – it includes the right of others to receive information and to use that information to form their own opinions and views. Individuals need to receive information about their leaders in order to have the knowledge necessary to hold them accountable. Without a free press this accountability becomes impossible, and by criminalising the conduct of journalists countries risk constraining the engagement of all citizens and their own full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression.
In Swaziland the media is heavily controlled by King Mswati III, and so there is very little scope for journalists to expose news that is critical of the government or the monarchy. The Nation magazine has been one of the few publications that has routinely criticized authority and has provided information on unlawful and irregular conduct of the King, Prime Minister, and members of their administration. The detention of Makhubu and Maseko has prevented them reporting on events since March, and a conviction on these charges would extend that even further. The charges also serve as a warning to other journalists and commentators that they face sanction if they report unpopular stories. The infringements of Makhubu and Maseko’s expression therefore have serious consequences for the ability of Swazis to hold their leadership to account.
The trial in Egypt has been covered widely by the international press, and journalists around the world engaged in a massive social media campaign to draw attention to the trial and to call for the release of the journalists. The trial in Swaziland has not received the same attention, and in a country where the media is so tightly restricted and where there is little foreign attention, those of us who can report on these matters must continue to do so. This is imperative to ensure that we remain aware of the plight of Makhubu and Maseko as they spend their 105th day in detention, but also to provide the information to Swazi citizens that they cannot get from their own media.