Swazi soccer guru harasses journalists with impunity

mwusSoccer guru Victor Gamedze has allegedly assaulted a journalist and ordered another fired because they wrote unfavourable stories about him and his football team. Such media control and self-censorship is commonplace in Swaziland.

Victor Gamedze, an influential, powerful and politically connected businessman, “controls the Swazi Observer Group of Newspapers,” according to last week’s edition of Swaziland Shopping. Gamedze is also the Acting President of the National Football Association of Swaziland, Premier League of Swaziland Chairman and Mbabane Swallows FC owner.

Amongst the claims made by Swaziland Shopping is that he has assaulted a journalist who was pursuing a story about him with impunity and (successfully) ordered the Managing Editor of the Swazi Observer, Mbongeni Mbingo, to fire the papers’ Sports Editor, who had written an unfavourable story about his football club.

Media under siege
But according to Sicelo Vilane, the General Secretary of the Media Workers Union of Swaziland, the actions of Gamedze is just one case that has been reported upon many, where journalists in Swaziland are harassed and ethical standards are broken in the Swazi media.

“The media industry in Swaziland is under siege. Media houses have become lapdogs and media workers are being harassed and intimidated. There is an escalating number of cases happening within local media houses, especially cases that touch on the harassment and unfair treatment of junior reporters and the selling out of the journalism profession to gangsters with hidden agendas, against the ethics and independence of the media,” Vilane wrote in a press statement sent out Saturday.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no Swazi newspapers chose to quote from the press statement.  Vilane says he was told by a journalist that the Managing Editor of his newspaper had ordered him not to do so, without offering any explanation for this decision.

Censorship and self-censorship
Self-censorship is part of a broader problem in the Swazi media. The Swazi Observer was described as a “pure propaganda machine for the royal family,” to which Victor Gamedze is connected, by the Media Institute of Southern Africa in a report in 2013.

But the matter of curtailing the freedom of the press is broader than that of a single newspaper, as the case of the Times on Sunday publisher and managing editor “being summoned to the royal court, where the king informed them that any stories related to the king’s property did not belong in the newspaper,” as reported in the 2014 African Media Barometer, shows.

The report also mentions the pressure that companies and the government exerts on the media, in a small country such as Swaziland, by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw advertising if they write unfavourable articles about them.

In their 2015 Freedom of the Press report from 2015, American research-NGO Freedom House described a situation where “numerous laws restrict media freedom, including harsh defamation laws; the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008, which the government has threatened to apply to critical journalists; and legislation that penalizes sedition with a prison sentence of up to 20 years.”

Swaziland was ranked 153rd, just below DRC Congo, out of 180 countries, in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index published by Reports Without Borders. “Self-censorship is routine … [and] Journalists cannot work freely,” the organization stated.

Media freedom and democracy go hand in hand
In August, employers of Sicelo Vilane’s Media Workers Union of Swaziland protested outside the offices of the Swazi Observer because of management intimidation, poor working conditions and low wages. The union had been banned from holding an actual picket by Swaziland’s High Court.

Sicelo Vilane sees such curtaining of both union and media freedom as a problem, both in regard to the freedom of speech that is promised in Swaziland’s constitution, and in regard to Swaziland becoming a truly democratic country.

“The future of media freedom is intrinsically liked with democracy. Curtailing media freedom is at the core of how the state ensures its rule is never challenged, and the continued harassment and intimidation has given birth to a media that is not critical, not telling it like it is,” says Sicelo Vilane.

According to an Afrobarometer report from 2015, freedom of speech in Swaziland is perceived as the most limited of the 28 African countries surveyed. Allowing intimidation of media workers such as Sicelo Vilane or allowing businessmen such as Victor Gamedze to dictate what can and cannot be written in Swazi newspapers surely will do nothing to rectify that tendency.

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