The violence and thuggery of the security forces in Eswatini is outrageous, and on that basis alone the South African government should have intervened. The level of violence was starkly illustrated in a recent Daily Maverick article. Is there a proportional level of concern, outrage, and engagement from our government? It doesn’t seem so.
For nearly two weeks, South Africa’s media, to their credit, have been reporting on the increasing level of violence in Eswatini and we have seen journalists threatened, detained and tortured. The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has issued strong statements and media houses have highlighted the violence against journalists, as well as the escalating situation.
Sanef tweeted that at least two newsrooms, SABC and Newzroom Afrika, have had to withdraw their journalists from Eswatini because of the ongoing attacks and intimidation against them.
The issue has been picked up by regional and international bodies including Misa and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. So, we have clear evidence not only of the most egregious treatment of its own citizens, but also clear violations of the rights of South African media organisations and journalists.
We might understand the reluctance to respond stridently to an internal situation where diplomacy calls for sides to engage peacefully, but to say nothing when our own citizens are violated and assaulted is shameful and a clear abrogation of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation’s (Dirco’s) constitutional and regional duties and responsibilities.
To date, the most recent press release on the violence in Eswatini we can find on Dirco’s website says this, and it’s worth quoting in full just to demonstrate how spectacularly inadequate it is:
“Media Statement, 01 July 2021
Ongoing political and security situation in the Kingdom of eSwatini
The South African Government notes with great concern the ongoing political and security situation in the Kingdom of eSwatini.
We are particularly concerned by reports of loss of life and destruction of properties.
The right to peaceful protest is universally recognised.
The South African Government calls on the security forces to exercise total restraint and protect the lives and property of the people, in keeping with the country’s constitutional provisions and laws.
In addition, South Africa urges all political actors and civil society to engage in meaningful dialogue in order to resolve the current political challenges facing the country.”
Not only has Eswatini assaulted and tortured members of our media, it has also instructed MTN to cut services to the internet. Newzroom Afrika carried an interview with the Eswatini minister of commerce, who tried to justify shutting down the internet by saying it was so that they could figure out a way to isolate the foreign agents who were mobilising against them. It’s a feeble argument at best and a blatant falsity. Internet shutdowns are clear violations of the right to freedom of expression.
US NPO the Internet Society says:
“The United Nations considers cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of Article 19, Paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also calls upon all States to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.”
Not only has Eswatini violated basic rights in shutting down the internet, but it also forced a South African company to participate in this. Again, we would have expected an urgent response from Dirco and the government.
The problem with tolerating those who seek to undermine and limit media freedom is that they only get worse. Eswatini ranked 141 out of 181 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2020. We have seen how our silence has emboldened and allowed the situation to get worse. We would call on them to act now, but given that they have failed to respond to clear rights violations, we fear our call will disappear into the void.
If we tolerate and allow our government to tolerate attacks on journalists they will only get worse.
Just this weekend we saw members of the media, and the SABC’s Samkele Maseko in particular, being threatened and assaulted, while others (including Jacob Zuma’s son Edward) reportedly threatened to burn a media vehicle. Despite calls from the media to respond and instead of clear condemnation from the government and the ANC in particular, there is silence. While the ANC has some matters on its hands, its members and the government all have duties to protect the media and ensure they can do their jobs.
Over the past few months, a number of our journalists have been threatened and attacked for simply doing their jobs. Frequently, the attacks have been carried out by political party members and there has been silence from our parties. It’s an ominous sign as we head towards local government elections. Journalism fulfils a public good, whatever its limitations. There can be no democracy without a free media.
As we are witnessing in Eswatini, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to do nothing.” We have allowed Eswatini to descend further into the most abhorrent rights violations. We need our political parties to see that the system that gives them their power depends on free media and it is in their interests to defend and protect it. DM