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Swaziland's press freedom under scrutiny

Prison sentences for editor and human rights lawyer have been criticised by rights groups and the US State Department.
Last modified: 30 Jul 2014 13:48
Bheki Makhubu was arrested on charges of contempt of court based on articles he published [AFP]

As Al Jazeera's own staff languish in an Egyptian prison having been sentenced to between seven and 10 years, other journalists, up and down Africa, are being arrested on a regular basis.

Just last week a High Court judge in Swaziland sentenced an editor and writer to two years in jail to deter others from criticising the state.

Bheki Makhubu, the editor of The Nation magazine, and Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer, had written articles critical of a chief justice and the kingdom's judicial system - reports that led to their arrest earlier this year.

Right2Know campaigners in neighbouring South Africa protested against their detention and the group's spokesman Bongani Xezwi said the pressure helped secure their release a few days later. But soon the pair were back behind bars and they have now been given jail terms.

Right2Know were back on the streets of Pretoria on Wednesday, picketing the Swazi embassy - hoping their cries were heard through the thick stone walls of the embassy and the Union Buildings, the South African government's seat of power.

Xezwi may be hopeful of a positive outcome but Swaziland is not a democracy. It's ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch who pretty much reigns supreme, relying on a complex system of patronage and privilege while many Swazis can barely scrap together a living.

Despite the occasional rise and fall of pressure from South Africa for Swaziland to reform, very little seems to have changed in recent years. Right2Know says Jacob Zuma's government needs to educate its neighbours so that journalists can write without harassment, political interference and the fear of imprisonment for expressing critical voices.

The Swaziland prison sentences have been criticised around the world by Amnesty International and the US State Department as well as various professional journalism organisations.

Concerns over the human rights record has seen the US review Swaziland's membership of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) - which gives some products from some African countries duty free access to the US market.

If Swaziland is booted out of AGOA that could be a very tangible response. But ultimately, if factories that previously enjoyed AGOA's benefits close and thousands of jobs are lost, it is the ordinary Swazi workers who'll be punished for the country's lack of press freedom