Eight years ago award winning photographer and Times of Swaziland sports journalist Ntokozo Magongo stood on the cusp of danger. Magongo’s journalistic life was to scar forever after armed to the teeth police officers stormed the Times of Swaziland offices to arrest him in connection with a possible sedition charge.
The entire Times newsroom watched helplessly as Magongo was taken custody in the most dramatic of fashions. He was driven to the Mbabane police station where he was investigated for links with the progressive movement. Magongo had no idea that a tongue in cheek comment he had earlier made at the staff canteen about King Mswati III would subsequently lend him in hot water.
Luckily, police investigation could not link his comments with any ‘sinister’ political agenda. Consequently, he was released but not without a stern warning about the need to ‘respect the country’s authorities.’ Back at the newsroom questions lingered; who had taken a private ‘joke’ about the ‘authorities’ to the police? As it turned out, it was a fellow journalist, Senzo Dlamini, who had reported Magongo to the police.
At that very moment the nexus between the Swazi police and journalists was confirmed with firm authority. Before then, allegations that some journalists were state informers could be dismissed as mere unsubstantiated conjecture. On this day, however, came the smoking gun. We now know that journalists are not just deeply embedded within the state but were now a newsroom extension of the security cluster.
It is not difficult to understand why Dlamini would ‘snitch’ on a colleague. Dlamini was, after all, a self-proclaimed royal shoeshine boy notorious for bashing progressives in his newspaper column. His desperation for political appointments had taken him to Tinkhundla election in 2008 where he campaigned, lost and came back to proclaim himself an ‘objective’ journalist.
His political prostitution was to pay several years later though. His anti-democracy rhetoric was recognized hence his employment at the Royal Science and Technology Park, a position he holds to this day. The psychological damage Dlamini’s actions had on many a journalist lingered for years. Journalists now understood they could not bank on their employer to protect them and could not trust each other.
Fast forward to April 2020 and we have Eugene Dube, Editor of the online publication, Swazi Newsweek, who was raided, beaten and then forced into exile by the Swazi police. According to Dube, he was sold by a journalist turned police officer, Sizwe Maziya. The truth and otherwise of this claim is unknown but what is certain is that the journalist—police wheel had turned full circle. The umbilical link between journalists and the security establishment had become life threatening.
In the past, this nexus used to reward journalists with jobs in the security sector but now it had developed dangerous fangs. Where did it all go wrong? Where did the wheels fall off? In this article, I argue that to answer these questions we must disabuse ourselves from emotionally driven pedestrian analyses that reduces the problem to rogue journalists alone. The problem is deeper.
A hostile judiciary
One of the least acknowledged challenges facing the media in Swaziland is the hostility of the judiciary. When the constitution came into effect many of us hoped the promises contained in the bill of rights would be given life by our judges.
We held to faint hopes that the bill of rights would allow the media the space to hold the executive accountable. This was necessary given that our country has no official opposition. Instead, the courts have been very hostile and vindictive to the media. To appreciate this point one must take a cursory look at the recent civil claims against both the Times of Swaziland and Swazi Observer to understand the tightrope journalist walk on.
In fact, an analysis of the defamation cases dating back to 2005 when the country adopted the constitution leaves one feeling like we made five steps forward and 10 backwards. In the intervening period, the courts have awarded punitive cost orders against the print media in particular.
As recent as 2017 the Supreme Court awarded gospel singer Sipho Makhabane a whooping E300 000 for an article penned by the late journalist Phinda Zwane. Makhabane had alleged that the Weekend Observer defamed him by stating that he had lied that he paid bail for controversial gospel artist and Member of Parliament France Dlamini.
The weekend Observer relied on Section 24 (2) (a) of the Constitution which sought to protect freedom of the press. In the very least the newspaper hoped the court would be lenient in their cost order. However, the High Court, and later the Supreme Court, were to find against the newspaper and awarded Makhabane a punitive E300 000 as damages for defamation.
As if that was not enough, the Supreme Court recently upheld an appeal by former Swazi Observer Managing Director Alpheous Nxumalo who claimed the High Court was wrong not to award him damages for an article claiming he was HIV positive. The Observer had obtained recordings of Nxumalo confessing in a television program in South Africa that he had HIV. Nxumalo later claimed he did not imply that he was the one who was HIV positive but his wife. The High Court dismissed Nxumalo’s claims but on appeal the Supreme Court reversed the decision.
The lower court was asked to determine a fair compensation for Nxumalo. Again, in 2018 the Supreme Court ruled against the newspaper after seeking condonation for the late filing of affidavits in a defamation case brought by Dr Futhi Dlamini. The newspaper is expected to pay the Doctor a lot of money after a legal blunder by their lawyers.
The Times of Swaziland has not been spared in this ‘anti media’ crusade. For example, former Senate President Gelane Simelane won half a million for a false article accusing her of having a different father. There are many other similar cases pending and finalised at the High Court.
There could be many reasons why the courts are increasingly finding against the media and awarding such punitive costs. It could very well be that the media has become grossly negligent and incompetent at a time when people can now claim their right under the very constitution that protects both freedom of speech and right to dignity.
Perhaps, the juniorisation of the newsroom, high staff turnover and the lack of academic training for journalists and editors plays a role. That, however, cannot be enough an explanation. After all, the Times of Swaziland and Swazi Observer have historically been led, at their most senior editorial level, by journalists of humble academic background. We must, therefore, widen the net to find answers. Perhaps, the very composition of the bench needs a closer look.
The Ramodibedi and Mpendulo spectacle showed that our judges are not immune to the political, social and economic prejudices we have. Any suggestions that Judges in Swaziland are objective and follow the law blindly is naïve.
The consequence of the courts’ hostility towards the media has seen journalist ‘play it safe’ in fear of ridiculous suits. In the final analysis, they have abandoned their role as public watchdogs who must hold the powerful accountable. This explains in part why both our local publications have become classist; focusing on the transgression of the poor.
In fact, reading the local press today feels like a community newsletter punctuated by police crime reports, parliament stenography and politicians speeches. The dearth of rigorous investigative journalism and paucity of credible political commentary has become lamentable.
The political capture of our media
In 2013 an unusual event happened in Swaziland. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) openly called for Times group Managing Editor, Martin Dlamini, to resign. MISA was worried that his close proximity to the king was unprofessional and unethical. This was uncharacteristic of MISA to go beyond the ‘diplomatic’ channels and calling out one of their own.
In one of their annual reports MISA claimed that Dlamini was now beholden to higher authorities and that the newspaper’s editorial independence was now at stake.
Read the report in part: “This fear has been exacerbated by his unprecedented coverage of King Mswati III’s trip to the United Nations in New York, later in the United Arab Emirates in October 2012, where he not only reported for his own publication, but also for the competing Swazi Observer! ‘Dlamini undertook this trip as part of the king’s delegation. The mere fact that the Times of Swaziland managing editor, a leading private publication, is found writing stories for the Swazi Observer, a royalist publication, is the cause for serious reflection.”
If South Africa had a case of state capture, then Dlamini became a Swazi version of ‘capture’ of our only ‘independent’ newspaper. That Dlamini was allegedly the king’s speechwriter and royal correspondent was bad enough but writing for competing publications took the decay to new lows. In subsequent years we were to learn that Dlamini earns a salary at the King’s office as ‘Deputy Specialist political affairs’ when he globetrots with the king.
We only got to know of this after the leaking of the king’s travel delegation to Azerbaijan in 2019. Dlamini’s name stood out like a sore thumb. Even though ‘corporate capture’ had long been a trend in the local media, what Dlamini’s case showed was a new political takeover of the only ‘private’ publication we banked on for objectivity. In the past, influential business people like Indian Consular Kareem Ashraff or the late businessmen Victor Gamedze had most journalist on speed dial.
In fact, journalists kowtowed to corporate interests more often than not. ‘Corporate capture’ was therefore always the unspoken norm in the newsrooms. Musa Ndlangamandla, then Chief Editor of the Swazi Observer, took this form of corporate capture to new corrupt heights. By his own admission, the Swazi Observer went beyond its mission to becoming a tool for the personal enrichment of some journos.
Journalists knew if they wrote favorably about certain companies they would be recruited and become media officers in private sector companies. Is it a wonder then that our local media hardly reports about private sector corruption or more of the same things.
Alongside this ‘corporate capture’ was desperation by poorly skilled and lowly paid journalists to get government jobs. The number of journalists who eventually became police officers, soldiers and members of the Correctional Services is testament to this fact. However, scooping a high profile positions as Dlamini did was always rare.
In the majority of cases, frustrated journalists ended up being media liaising officers for ministers. That the royal family had huge plans for Dlamini was first demonstrated when he was appointed Secretary of the SMART partnership summit and later the king’s media liaising officer. The desperation to leave the media is understandable but the means employed deplorable.
Well-meaning journalist are forced into this political prostitution because Paul Loffler, the Publisher of African Echo, the holding company for the Times group of newspapers, is a vulture capitalist who underpays and fires his staff at will. The Times employs poorly skilled journalists so they can be vulnerable to naked exploitation and can be dumped like a bad habit at the slightest transgression. After all, Loffler ruthlessly dealt with a media union that sought to organise and improve worker’s conditions.
Since most of the journalists have little to no tertiary qualification they have no alternative to go to. At best, they simply swing back and forth between the Times and Observer. At worse, they go to the small inconsequential publications. Hunger brings them back to the Times of Swaziland this time with reduced bargaining capacity.
This exploitation has led to many journalists using the Times of Swaziland as a stepping ladder to other careers. Loffler himself is no longer bothered about the degeneration of the newsroom or the ethical conundrum brought by keeping Dlamini as Managing Editor. Faced with a rotten political environment, a hostile judiciary, dwindling economy, he has, I figure, resigned himself not to antagonise the government.
After all, under the late Prime Minister, Barnabas Dlamini, threats of pulling out advertising, the main source of revenue for the Times of Swaziland, became commonplace. In any event, Loffler’s interest in the newspaper business is now to help his other companies especially his heavy investments in property.
To Loffler the Times has thus become an instrument of power and influence more than a centre for journalistic excellence. That his father would routinely be threatened with deportation and his own status as a Swazi questioned taught him to toe the line.
The space for alternative voices in the media has never been more urgent than now. The need for plurality of voices even more necessary. It is indeed sad that our thought leaders are political nitwits and nonstarters like Welcome Dlamini, Alec Lushaba, Maqhawe Nxumalo etc. In fact it is an indictment to the cache of intellectual arsenal of our country. The fact that well known royal shoeshine boys are given a platform to twerk for political appointment and spread anti-democracy propaganda without a corresponding alternative narrative speaks to the level of capture of our media at the height level.
The vacant position of government spokesperson has taken this political twerking on overdrive. Even Alec Lushaba, a well known intellectual dwarf, has taken his political prostitution to new despicable heights.
However, even as we call for new media voices we must avoid the extreme as seen in Zweli Martin Dlamini’s online newspaper. While Zwemart, as he is popularly known, does amazing journalism his publication is struggling to shrug off the temptation of embellishment, exaggeration, slander and sometimes downright lies. The need for credibility in alternative media cannot be overemphasised and in most new publications it comes in short supply.
Zweli Martin Dlamini. His publication is a necessary alternative voice but needs to improve issues of credibility
To pander to political factions of the pro-democracy movement and seeking acceptance as a legitimate voice for the progressives must not come at the expense of truthful and ethical journalism. With that said, we must not throw the baby with the bathwater when it comes to ‘Zwemart’. We must support all attempts to widen the playing field. Linked to this is the need to support good journalism as practised by the Nation Magazine financially.
If recent reports are anything to go by, then the publication risks closure owing to the current ‘advertising’ sabotage by the state through its parastatals. That the publication is not doing well financially means those who value their work must help it swim against the tide. The media is an important player in any democracy and we cannot allow the Nation to die.
NB: This article was written by one of the editors in country’s two daily publication. The author asked to use a pseudo identity.