The Regional Governing Council (RGC) of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has labeled the conviction of prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and The Nation magazine editor Bheki Makhubu on contempt of court charges a travesty of justice.
MISA-Swaziland Director Vuyisile Hlatshwayo condemned the conviction.
“It spells doom for the future of journalism and practicing journalists in the country,” he said. “It further stifles media development because it instills fear in journalists and citizens who want to express their views. Without the participation of all Swazis through the media, the king’s vision of taking Swaziland to the first world by 2022 will remain a mirage.
“MISA-Swaziland appeals to the Swazi authorities to uphold and respect section 24 of the Constitution, which protects free speech and media freedom. They must know that a free and independent media is the catalyst for the social economic development of any country. Because if people are not allowed to express their views on issues affecting their daily lives, there is no way the decision makers can make informed and relevant policies. MISA-Swaziland reaffirms its position that dissenting views are healthy and are not to be confused with disloyalty. MISA-Swaziland continues to stand by prisoners of conscience Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko.”
Throughout the region, MISA members have denounced this as a sad day for media freedom in Swaziland, and have called on the global free expression movement to turn the spotlight on this travesty of justice in Swaziland.
“From the outset of the trial, it was clear that the court always intended to deliver a guilty verdict, in what we see as a farcical miscarriage of justice and frightening indictment of the lack of media freedom in Swaziland,” said Anthony Kasunda, Chairperson of the MISA RGC.
“Rather than convicted criminals, we consider our colleagues to be political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. We call on Swazi authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally.”
Kasunda confirmed that MISA would continue its support and solidarity of Maseko and Makhubu, and would make every effort to publicise this injustice as well as garner regional solidarity for their cause.
On 17 July the High Court in Mbabane, Swaziland found the two respected human rights activists guilty of contempt of court in relation to articles published in The Nation magazine published in February and March this year, which criticised the conduct of Swaziland’s Chief Justice, Michael Ramodibedi. Presiding judge Mpendulo Simelane was also mentioned in the offending articles. At the beginning of proceedings defence lawyers applied for Simelane to recuse himself, but to no avail.
Throughout the trial lawyers for the defendants argued that they were “exercising their right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution”. In his judgment, Judge Simelane attacked journalists, saying Swaziland’s Constitution does not grant absolute rights for freedom of expression, and therefore journalists must exercise caution.
“Journalists think that just because they have the power of the pen they can write anyhow under the guise of freedom of expression,” he said.
Makhubu and Maseko were arrested on 17 and 18 of March respectively, and have spent over 100 days in jail during the three-month trial, throughout which they were denied bail. They will remain in custody until sentencing, which Judge Simelane has suspended indefinitely.
Experts hold grave fears that Makhubu and Maseko could face a jail sentence of no less than three years.