Swaziland’s Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini has hinted his government might try to restrict access to social media.
He told Senators there was nothing police could do ‘at the moment’ about posts on sites such as Facebook. The Prime Minister and his government have a long history of threatening social media.
The Swazi Observer reported on Wednesday (28 March 2018), ‘The premier told the senators that all countries in the world were concerned on whether social media was good for development or not.’
He was speaking during a debate about how video footage showing the murder of businessman Victor Gamedze who was shot dead in a petrol station appeared on social media.
The newspaper reported, ‘The premier said it was unfortunate that social media was a very complex phenomenon, which no single person or organisation could control.’
It added, ‘However, the prime minister said there were many positives of social media. It enables people to communicate easily at lower costs and it also enables people to do business internationally. But he warned that abuse of social media could lead to devastating effects.’
The Swazi Government has a history of hostility to social media. In 2011, Dlamini said it was important to keep information published on Facebook away from the Swazi people. ‘If such stories from these websites then make it to the newspapers and radios, then the public at large will start to think there is some truth in the story yet it was just malicious gossip,’ the Times of Swaziland reported him saying at the time.
He was commenting after information about a cabinet minister had appeared on social media.
The Swazi Observer also reported at the time, ‘Dlamini said government did not have any measures to control the internet but relied on the support of the media which assists by shying away from information published or sourced from the internet.’
In the run up to April 2011 a group used Facebook to try to drum up support for an ‘uprising’ for democracy in the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III, who is sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. The Government threatened the online activists with prosecution.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), in a statement in March 2011 said, ‘On 25 March 2011, Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini assured Senators in Parliament that his government would track down, arrest and prosecute one Gangadza Masilela, whose Facebook postings have been critical of the status quo in Swaziland and the leadership in the country. Masilela, who is believed to be using a pseudonym, has a large following on his Facebook page. Parliament recently urged the government to do something about Masilela as his Facebook postings were deemed too critical of the country’s leadership.’
It added, ‘Having seen the uprisings in the Arab world where these social networks have been used to mobilize people to rise up and demand political changes from their governments, the jittery Swazi government is taking no chances and is trying to track down those calling for the Swazi uprising.’
In May 2011, the Times of Swaziland reported Swaziland had specially ‘trained officers’ to track down people who used Facebook to criticise the Swazi Government. Nathaniel Mahluza, Principal Secretary at the Ministry of Information Communication and Technology, said the government was worried by what the newspaper called ‘unsavoury comments’ about the kingdom being published on the internet.
In March 2012, Swaziland’s Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Chief Mgwagwa Gamedze said he would use the law against people who criticised Swaziland on the internet. He told the Swazi Senate that he would use what he called ‘international laws’ to bring the internet critics to task. He was reacting to concerns from Senators that the internet sites showed ‘disrespect’ to the King.
Academic research published in 2013 suggested that people in Swaziland used the Internet to communicate with one another and share information and ideas about the campaign for democracy, bypassing the Swazi mainstream media which was heavily censored. They debated and shared information about activities designed to bring attention to the human rights abuses in the kingdom.
The research suggested, ‘It is clear that social media sites have extended the public sphere to offer opportunities for a wider range of people both in the country and outside it, to produce, distribute and exchange information and commentary about the kingdom – especially in the context of the need for political change. People speak in their own voices and are not mediated in the way mainstream media are in Swaziland.’
In 2016, Afrobarometer reported nearly one in three people surveyed in Swaziland said they got their news from the internet at least ‘a few times a week’. It also reported that 33 percent of those surveyed got their news from ‘social media such as Facebook and Twitter’ a few times a week or every day.
In 2014, a report jointly published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) found young people in Swaziland were turning to social media sites such as Facebook because it allowed them to enjoy ‘the fundamental rights to freedom of expression’ that was denied to them elsewhere in the kingdom.
They also bypassed mainstream media such as television, radio and newspapers in favour of social media. The report called Youth Usage of Social media in Swaziland concluded, ‘The young people have welcomed the emergence of the social media because, among others, it affords them an opportunity not only to inter-act but also enjoy the fundamental right to freedom of expression provided in Section 24 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Swaziland adopted in 2005.’
The report added, ‘They can now easily and freely bypass the severely censored mainstream media to access, produce, distribute and exchange information and ideas.