June 6, 2002

Unions say King's Actions Harm Democracy - Oppositional journalist arrested

Swaziland's absolute monarch, King Mswati III has moved to quell any protests against a new constitution that will entrench his rule. Mswati has promulgated the Internal Security Bill 2002, which is likely to be passed by a parliament lacking any opposition parties and made up entirely of Mswati loyalists.

The Bill seeks to make it illegal for people to wear any political colours, display flags, or participate in political rallies. It complements the 1973 decree that banned political parties in the kingdom. Swaziland's Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) president Africa Magongo said that the federation and its partners, civic organisations and political movements, were planning to hold mass protest action against the proposed new constitution. But with the promulgation of the new Internal Security Bill, Mswati had sought to snuff out any form of dissent in a country with a population barely reaching one million. Magongo said: "The bill itself is not, per se, an internal security bill, [it is not aimed at] any crime related issues within the country but more politically motivated. Particularly because we are about to begin a massive campaign against the constitutional process. We have already written to the king and the prime minister, making it very clear we want to start a mass action against these issues." However, he hoped mass action could be avoided through fruitful dialogue with the authorities.

Mswati's constitutional review commission has released a report that will be the basis for a new national constitution, to be drafted by September. It calls for a permanent ban on opposition politics and an expansion of royal powers. Since 1973 the tiny country has been without a constitution. "The 1973 decree [by Mswati's father King Sobhuza] gives the king absolute power, it bans any public demonstrations, any political activity by any other organisation other than the ruling clique, it includes the 60 day detention and bans all political parties, it also provides for people to be charged with high treason in relation to political activity," said Magongo. He argued that the constitutional review process was "hijacked by the king and some of his cronies... They say there should be nothing relating to human rights, they say Swazis want the king to remain an absolute monarch, the whole process was tailor-made to preserve the status quo," Magongo said.

On June 2 it was told that Police in Mbabane arrested one of Swaziland's top foreign correspondents, Thulani Mthethwa, in connection with the theft of a computer owned by the banned Guardian of Swaziland newspaper. However, Mthethwa has since been released after he admitted stealing the computer valued at R8.000. The police said that the computer had been missing from the Guardian offices for several months. Mthethwa failed to account for it when one of the newspaper's directors, Vusi Sibisi, enquired about it. It was then that the matter was reported to the police in Mbabane who subsequently arrested Mthethwa over the first weekend in June. He conceded that he stole the computer and sold it. He was ordered to pay the amount covering the value of the computer back. When the Guardian newspaper was banned in May last year after it had published a story alleging that a senior wife of Swaziland's King Mswati III had poisoned him using food, Mthethwa continued publishing the defunct paper's Internet version. But the Internet version of the newspaper has also ceased publication due to financial constraints. Mthethwa has been on the wrong side of the Swazi traditional authorities for his reports, which the state labelled as anti-government. The first report that brought him into the spotlight was when he revealed a list of top police officers engaged in a car thefts and smuggling syndicate in 1992. Since then, the police considered him as their enemy and have been monitoring his movements.

Last year, Mthethwa won the Best Journalist of the year award conducted by the Swaziland National Association of Journalists in conjunction with Swaziland's only mobile phone provider, MTN. Many local journalists have described his arrest as an embarrassment to the profession, saying that it was unnecessary for Sibisi and the other directors to report the matter to the police. Efforts to get comments from Sibisi proved futile, as his whereabouts are not known. Mthethwa was fired together with more than 80 journalists and general staff employed by The Swazi Observer newspaper in 2000 when the government closed the newspaper. (IRIN, DAILY CHAMPION)

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