By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

Not all journalists, who made a mark in Eswatini journalism, have made it to the top 40 list of veteran journalists honoured by Eswatini Editors’ Forum (EEF) in the recent World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) Commemoration. 

This year, the EEF decided to pay tribute to 40 veteran journalists at its inaugural media awards ceremony held at the Mbabane-based landmark – United Nations House. According to EEF chair Mbongeni Mbingo, its significance was much more than the recognition of veteran journalists. It was also to inspire young ones of a noble profession dedicated to serving the public good, he added.

However, the criterion for selecting the veteran journalists left a great deal to be desired. Some courageous journalists whose contribution to journalism has been tremendous have gone under the EEF’s radar. The all-powerful editors’ forum executive elected to cherry pick veteran journalists, thus running the risk of ignoring others. 

Mbingo brushed off any public concerns about the Forum’s biased selection criterion. He said the list of veterans debated at the Forum was long such that they took a decision to start small, given that it had no budget or sponsor. He complained about insufficient time to involve the public in the preparation and planning. He hastily added that the Forum was part of a group of stakeholders that organised this year’s WPFD.

“There could only have been a select number of the veterans recognised. There was an effort to structure it accordingly, by looking at journalists who had worked longer than 20 years, also with an emphasis on those who had and were still in practice. At the end of an inclusive process, the decision was taken that recognition of veteran journalists be adopted as an annual event during WPFD,” said the chairperson.

Among notable omissions is Thulani Mthethwa, the former senior Swazi Observer reporter and assistant editor of the defunct The Guardian of Swaziland newspaper. Well known for exposés in the 2000s, his contribution made a seismic change in the media sector. 

In early 2000, he scooped his rivals by publishing a secret letter involving then Swaziland Royal Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary and the South African Police (SAP) Special Squad. He uncovered that the former had written the latter a letter asking for assistance in arresting two emaSwati businessmen linked to another liSwati businessman, Ron Smith, who was out on bail in South Africa on drug trafficking charges. 

In its 2000 So This Is Democracy report, MISA Swaziland reported that Mthethwa was summoned to the Mbabane police headquarters to a meeting he likened to a mini court session. In the company of his deputy Esau Dube and public relations officer, Leckinah Magagula, Hillary reprimanded him. He was labelled an ‘irresponsible’ journalist and warned to stop writing any ‘rubbish’. The trio asked him to hand over the letter and reveal his sources, which he declined to do. 

Mthethwa was also hauled before Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini, who, once again, pressurised him to give in to the police demands. He threatened to lay a criminal charge against him for hindrance of police investigations. He further threatened to charge him with ‘defeating the ends of justice’ and ‘publishing a secret document that is a threat to national security.’ 

Mbuso Matsentjwa

Sabelo Masuku

Thulani Mthethwa

Buckling under pressure of iron-fisted PM Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, who doubled as police minister, the Swazi Observer board of directors shut down the newspaper. Although the closure was called a restructuring exercise, it was clear to all and sundry that it was due to its refusal to disclose sources for the stories relating to police corruption. Credit for this courageous stand goes to the forgotten veteran journalist and his editors who stuck to their guns in the face of mounting pressure.

Still advancing the cause of an unfettered press, Mthethwa published another exposé about King Mswati III’s illness and the rumour that Inkhosikati laMbikiza had tried to poison him in The Guardian of Swaziland newspaper. In 2001, the police arrested him and drove him to the police headquarters. They interrogated him over the stories about the activities in the king’s palace. Despite all the police verbal harassment and intimidation, he refused to disclose his sources.

According to the 2001 So This Is Democracy report, the government banned The Guardian of Swaziland newspaper from circulating in the country. Registrar of Newspapers Sam Malinga ordered it to cease immediately, saying the publication was not lawfully registered. Consequently, police were deployed throughout the country to collect copies of the newspaper from being sold. Others were stationed at Oshoek Border Post to intercept the newspaper from Middelburg, South Africa, where it was printed. 

Minister of Information Mntonzima Dlamini issued an Extraordinary Gazette Order, suspending The Guardian of Swaziland newspaper. He invoked Section 3 of the Proscribed Publications Act of 1968, which gave him sweeping powers to ban or suspend publications that do not conform with “Swazi morality and ideals.” 

King Mswati issued Decree No.2 of 2001, effectively declaring a state of emergency in eSwatini. Article 13 of the Decree reads: “ Where a magazine, book, newspaper or excerpt thereof is proscribed in terms of the Proscribed Publications Act, 1968, the Minister concerned shall not furnish any reasons or jurisdictional facts for such proscription. No legal proceedings may be instituted in relation of such proscription.” All this happened because of Mthethwa’s muckraking journalism.

In the wake of  the international community outcry, King Mswati withdrew Decree No.2 2001 and replaced it with Decree No.3 of 2001. The United States of America threatened to exclude eSwatini from the list of countries enjoying the trade benefits under the Africa Growth  Opportunity Act (AGOA).

When The Guardian of Swaziland newspaper closed, Mthethwa freelanced for international news outlets. He filed stories to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the South African Press Association (SAPA) among others. He was far from being cowed by the police who warned him to stop writing negatively about the country and the king in particular.  

Swazi TV news editor and presenter of the popular talk-show AsikhulumisaneLet’s Talk Sabelo Masuku is also conspicuously missing in the EEF’s top 40 list of veteran journalists. In a journalism field plagued by censorship, hypocrisy, opportunism and sycophancy, he remained an unsung crusader of the elusive press freedom and freedom of expression in the country. 

In his 1999 profile published by The Nation, Masuku featured ‘enlightened’ and sometimes controversial panellists to talk about a wide range of issues of public interest which many in the higher echelons of power did not like to hear – or rather, did not want the public to hear. Such included amongst others the mysterious car accident which led to the death of former prime minister Major General Prince Maphevu in Europe. 

His memorable talk-show pitted ultra-conservatives such as former Liqoqo strongman, Prince Mfanasibili and Speaker Mgabhi Dlamini against the hawkish progressives in the likes of the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) leader Dominic Mngomezulu and journalist-turned-private investigator Senzenjani Ngwenya. They heatedly debated the pros and cons of the unpopular Stickhandle governance. 

Masuku also pitted Liqoqo strongman Prince Mfanasibili against retired cop Madonda Sibandze in his search for the truth about the Liqoqo ousting of Queen Regent Dzeliwe.

His Asikhulumisane programme was undoubtedly the most watched local talk-show on Swazi TV. Even those who backbit him to the authorities failed to taint his true, accurate and balanced journalism.  

The top 40 list of veteran journalists is incomplete without Mbuso Matsenjwa, the late  indefatigable advocate for a free press and free speech. A great journalist of note, he worked for the Times of Swaziland, Swazi Observer and Swazi TV. The former Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) President presented the SNAJ case eloquently and persuasively before the Isaac Shabangu-led Media Council Bill Select Committee in 1997. 

“Our role is to facilitate change by operating in a free atmosphere devoid of coercion, intimidation, threats and downright insults from government functionaries. Ours is the unenviable task of telling it like it is, whatever the cost, whatever the price,” he submitted, adding: “The bill offers no inducements to journalists. It offers nothing which makes the work of a journalist easier. To say the bill makes the journalists work a lot more difficult is an understatement. The bill portrays the Swaziland Government as intolerant and totalitarian, as an abuser of human rights, as a paternal, censoring authority.” 

The entire media fraternity owes this late veteran journalist a debt of gratitude for convincing the 1997 Media Bill Select Committee to favour media self-regulation over state media regulation.