March 27, 2012

Government to censor social media

Swaziland is planning a censorship law that will ban Facebook and Twitter users from criticising its autocratic ruler, King Mswati III. Justice minister, Mgwagwa Gamedze, told the Swazi senate: “We will be tough on those who write bad things about the king on Twitter and Facebook. We want to set an example.” The government is finalising a law that will make it illegal to insult the king on social networks, Gamedze said.

The move follows comments by Swazi senator Thuli Msane over how online activism is spiralling out of control and threatening the king’s reputation. “It’s like, the moment Swazi people cross the border to neighbouring countries they begin to go on a campaign to disrespect their own country and king,” he said. “Surely there is something that must be done with them. There must be a law that can take them to task.” Although internet penetration is low among Swaziland’s 1.2-million people, networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been used to organise public protests, including a student demonstration on Monday against cutbacks in higher education.

Pius Vilakati, spokesperson of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, condemned the planned crackdown. “The government is desperate right now,” he said. “They are trying anything to stop people talking to each other. It would be difficult for them, because people will always talk and continue to talk.” Vilakati predicted “chaos” if the law was enforced. “I don’t think Swazis will take it lying down,” he said. Even so-called independent newspapers in Swaziland were heavily censored by the government, he added. “They say there is free speech in Swaziland. But if people are not allowed to criticise the leadership, there is no free speech.”

Last month, the sacked editor of the Swazi Observer newspaper reportedly fled the country in fear for his life. Swaziland’s crackdown follows similar measures in Zimbabwe, where a man was arrested last year over an allegedly subversive message he posted on Facebook. He was later cleared of all charges. (Daily Nation)

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