Richard Rooney’s online Swazi Media Commentary is a rare example of objective, progressive news and journalism in a country burdened with biased reporting and censorship, writes Peter Kenworthy.
To read accurate daily analyses of the situation in Swaziland, you must turn not to its self-censored official newspapers or a foreign media that has no daily presence in Swaziland, but to a blog written by Richard Rooney, a 54-year-old journalist and former associate professor at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA). ‘The Swazi media aren’t very good and there isn’t really a foreign press in Swaziland,’ Rooney says of the standard of reporting on Swaziland. Rooney’s blog, Swazi Media Commentary, in contrast, is both very outspoken, comprehensive and widely read. It usually carries articles every day on a wide range of subjects in relation to the Swazi media, democratisation and human rights which ‘help to build a loyal readership’, as Rooney puts it.
STARTING SWAZI MEDIA COMMENTARY
The site was started in 2007 as a way of informing his UNISWA students about Swazi media research, of which there was little to be found elsewhere. The website averages over 500 page views a day, although this doesn’t count readers of his articles that are reposted on other websites and debate forums, including his own mirror of the site, Swaziland Commentary. It is read in many countries in all the continents of the world, most of the readers coming from within Swaziland itself and many in South Africa, the US and the UK.
Initially, the site was to be primarily about the Swazi media, which is why it is called Swazi Media Commentary. ‘It was never intended as a “human rights” blog,’ says Rooney. ‘I taught journalism and mass communication at UNISWA and discovered that there was very little academic material on the media in Swaziland, so I set about researching and writing it myself. I thought to set up a website with short articles written by myself that would give examples from the Swazi media of topics that I and colleagues were teaching in class.’
Rooney had planned to discontinue the blog after he left UNISWA in 2008, but was asked to continue it by his many readers. ‘I continue to write it because people continue to read it. I get a lot of private feedback about posts and also emails with requests for information from all kinds of people, including journalists who are going to visit Swaziland; from professional people doing academic research on Swaziland; university students inside and outside Swaziland; school students inside and outside Swaziland and human rights activists.’
‘ROONEY IS PIVOTAL’
The people within the Swazi democratic movement whom I have contacted praised Rooney’s journalism. Swaziland Solidarity Network spokesperson Lucky Lukhele said that Swazi Media Commentary ‘has been very critical of the censorship in the news, both self-censorship and that which is imposed by the state. Swazi Media Commentary also tries its level best to search for and publish news that Swazi newspapers cannot publish due to censorship.’
Maxwell Dlamini, president of Swaziland National Union of Students, says that Swazi Media Commentary has ‘become the voice for the voiceless oppressed people of Swaziland,’ and that he is ‘so much grateful to have such a progressive and opening platform.’
Sikelela Dlamini, project coordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, speaks of Rooney’s ‘insistence on objective journalism, achieved through systematic gathering of facts’. His concern is that Swazi journalists, on the other hand, ‘take shortcuts by gunning for quick stories which are not exhaustively investigated,’ and that ‘Rooney could yet play a pivotal role in the democratic movement's search for alternative media.’
A third source from within the movement, who asked not to be named, called Swazi Media Commentary ‘an invaluable source of independent and alternative information and a vital service in continuously keeping the largely hidden political problems of Swaziland on the international map,’ and said that Rooney had a ‘deep understanding of media ethics and press freedom that ordinary Swazi journalists do not normally feel able to practise.’
ROLE OF THE SWAZI MEDIA
One of the main reasons for the importance and relevance of Rooney’s Swazi Media Commentary is clearly the disposition of the Swazi mainstream media. The two widely read daily newspapers in Swaziland, the Swazi Observer, in effect owned by King Mswati, and the Times of Swaziland, exercise a large degree of self-censorship. The editor of the former has even vowed not to print anything unfavourable about the monarch. (The small magazine, The Nation, does live up to its self-proclaimed role as ‘watchdog’ by challenging the government, and the government has responded by taking the magazine editor to court in an attempt to close it down. The Nation, however, has nowhere near the readership of the mainstream papers).
Many of the articles in the Swazi newspapers also tend to have a sensationalist tinge, and when they do report on the democratic-, financial- and human rights-related crises that Swaziland is facing – as especially the Times does – they tend not to properly analyse why the country is in such a state. Maybe this is because they fear that the government, who in the case of the Times is a major source of advertisements and thus income, will remove this vital source of income, maybe because they have been threatened not to print stories unfavourable to the monarch or prime minister.
That this is the case flies in the face of general journalistic standards and the Swaziland National Association of Journalists’s code of conduct. Article 8 states that, ‘under no circumstances should news or a publication be suppressed unless it borders on issues of national security.’ Either ‘national security’ is defined very broadly in Swaziland, or its editors or journalists should try harder to observe these standards.
Rooney has himself commented on the lack of quality of the Swazi media on his blog, for example in 2007, where he wrote that he had ‘found during the three years I have lived in Swaziland that if I want to really know what’s going on in the kingdom, I should not bother with the Swazi media.’ This view of the media in Swaziland may not exactly have endeared him to Swazi newspaper editors or journalists, as I learnt when speaking to the editor of the Times of Swaziland in September. Nevertheless, Rooney says that they still sometimes use his material: ‘Both Swazi newspapers have followed up on my blogs in the past, without attribution mostly.’
The foreign press, for its part, doesn’t report very regularly on Swaziland, and most of its stories are written by freelancers, as there are no foreign bureaux in Swaziland. Rooney has therefore been approached, and has supplied information to, an array of foreign news outlets from around the world, including Africa Report, the BBC, France 24, PBS and ABC TV in the US, and Reuters.
HOW TO SOLVE SWAZILAND’S PROBLEMS?
So what should the media be reporting on and how should the international community react? A real problem is that the international community isn’t really interested in Swaziland, according to Rooney. ‘It has no real mineral wealth that industrialised nations need and it has no strategic ports or airstrips, so is of no military use.’ Foreign governments and the multilaterals do therefore not feel compelled to pressure the Swazi regime on its many wrongdoings or to demand democratisation – although strategic interest does not automatically result in political pressure, of course.
Swaziland’s democratic movement therefore seems to be in something of a catch 22 situation. It needs the international community to help it grow, but the international community will probably not help it before it gets its act together, so to speak. And for this it needs credible news and analysis about Swaziland. It is therefore perhaps a little sad that both the international community, and to a large degree people in Swaziland who have an internet connection (approximately 5 per cent of the population in 2008), must rely to a large degree on Rooney’s blog for in-depth, independent news and analysis on Swaziland. On the other hand, this should not take anything away from the importance and quality of Rooney’s efforts.
The action – or inaction – of the international community in regard to Swaziland matters however, says Rooney. ‘I think organisations like the IMF [International Monetary Fund], EU [European Union], African Development Bank, should insist on political reform as a prerequisite for bank loans and aid,’ he says. ‘And overseas political parties, trade unions etc could help to build the capacity of individual members of the Swazi opposition groups, for instance PUDEMO [People's United Democratic Movement], so they can develop leadership skills and also develop practical political policies that can be put forward in opposition to the present leadership.’
An increased professionalism and direction is an important prerequisite to getting both a larger segment of the people of Swaziland and the international community on board, says Rooney. ‘The democratic movement tends to mainly focus on activism to get “democracy”, but it is less clear what they will do once they get it. For example, as far as I know, none of the groups has a coherent policy on getting Swaziland out of its economic mess. How will they eradicate poverty? What’s the plan for creating jobs? If they had a manifesto, as opposition political parties have in democracies, they might increase their credibility with Swazi people and also with people/groups/nations in the free world who could perhaps assist them to meet their ambitions. I don’t mean this as a criticism of individual people, but at the moment these groups come across as political amateurs – maybe big on rhetoric, but small on actual policies.’
Certainly, without proper information and direction, the ever-increasing and understandable anger that many Swazis feel because of their growing economic predicament will not necessarily be vented at a Swazi regime that is to a large degree responsible for it. ‘People will get fearful and angry,’ says Rooney, ‘but might not know how to direct that fear and anger.’
BRINGING ABOUT CHANGE
Rooney is aware that the task of bringing about real democracy in Swaziland is enormous, however: ‘“Real” democracy took hundreds of years to come about in Western Europe, the US etc, so we shouldn’t expect much for Swaziland – but we can move towards these things. Unbanning political parties in Swaziland would be a big step forward.’
The present financial crisis in Swaziland might help bring about a change that could lead to democratisation by removing the system of clientelism that keeps the king in power, especially as this crisis is to a large degree self-inflicted as it started well before the international financial crisis in 2008. ‘Change will start to come about when those in Swaziland who presently have a stake in the status quo lose that stake. That could easily happen in Swaziland, especially when there is increasing evidence that the king doesn’t have real loyalty – people around him are in it for what they can get for themselves. They couldn’t give a damn about the king – as long as they are getting their graft. Once the opportunity for graft goes, their loyalty will go too.’
‘It was financial crises that brought down many ex-Soviet states,’ Rooney reminds us as an analogy to the situation in Swaziland. ‘The middle class turned against the leaders and the leaders were out on their ears. As soon as the middle class can’t afford their luxuries they will revolt. Also, if the economy becomes a siege economy and goods are not available, they will revolt.’
Up until now the Swazi regime has relied on a combination of traditionalism, nationalism and brutal police and armed forces to stay in power. According to Rooney, however, the strength of the police and armed forces is bound to their supposed loyalty – a loyalty that can easily crumble. ‘I doubt that King Mswati’s army commanders have any real loyalty to him or the monarchy – they too are corrupt. Also, the capacity of the army is weak – just think of the 500 recruits who supposedly went crazy at the end of 2010 because they were possessed by demons.’ As for the legitimacy of parliament and Swaziland’s ministers, this is also rapidly dissipating. ‘The recent scandals involving e.g. ministers are hugely affecting the “legitimacy” because they show that everyone is in it for themselves.’
Reflecting on the problems and potential of information dissemination, Rooney argues that perhaps Swazis should also learn from other conflicts such as the presently unfolding revolution in Tunisia. ‘I think social networking might be a better way forward by keeping democracy activists and progressives informed on what is going on. I’m presently trying to do research on how social networking was involved in the recent Tunisia business to see if there are lessons to be learned for Swaziland,’ he says.
However the struggle for Swazi democratisation is brought forward, access to proper information, analysis and reflection is important – and blogs such as Rooney’s are therefore vital in that they not only deliver this but also inspire and help mobilise others. But none of this will bring about change without a strong and purposeful democratic movement within Swaziland itself.
As Rooney reflects, ‘The more we keep talking about these things the better. In my blog I constantly refer to the PM [prime minister] as being illegally appointed and that King Mswati is the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. himself illegitimate and undemocratic. I see my phrases used by other writers all over the web. All of this keeps telling people that they are not legitimate. The problem is that the knowledge that they are illegitimate is not enough. We need to mobilise activity around this and that is why political parties in Swaziland would be so important and equally why the rulers want to keep them banned.’
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* Peter Kenworthy is University of Swaziland (2005–08). He has published articles on a variety of subjects, including media freedom in Swaziland and media ideology.
* You can receive a weekly newsletter containing several of the most interesting weekly articles from Rooney’s Swazi Media Commentary news by mailing Africa Contact at [email][email protected].
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.