Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Gutter journalism and the politics of fear in Swaziland reports about a ‘secret army’

The People's United Democratic Movement of Swaziland
November 29, 2006

Gutter journalism and the politics of fear in Swaziland reports about a ‘secret army’

Allegations of a PUDEMO linked secret army published by the South African newspaper, The Star (25/11/06) has fanned the fire of the politics of fear. For two days, the two daily print media in Swaziland went on a feeding frenzy in a frantic attempt to give credibility to a discredited story. For many local journalists, The Star story has been a highly prized trophy. Hence, so much effort has gone into attempts to imbue this fantasy with a sense of authority and ‘truth’.

In the absence of any current information which could lend weight to the story, one newspaper has started digging up the bones of past dictators to try to find some way to strengthen their story. The Swazi Observer (29/11/06) resurrected the late King Sobhuza II’s response to the 1977 student uprising to give weight to the story. In his speech, King Sobhuza II used his usual anxiety-provoking strategy to warn Swazis against the implications of political dissent. King Sobhuza II was a dictator fearful of political change. He skilfully employed the politics of fear to remain in power by paddling an apocalyptic (umgicomgico) scenario of multi-party democracy in Swaziland. In an attempt to establish the ‘truth’ about the ‘secret army’, The Swazi Observer (Ibid), concludes in an article titled Umgicomgico: King Sobhuza II warned of political turmoil:

It would therefore, seem like the old King, like good wine had matured with time. He made this kind of warning at the age of 77! Like a Giraffe, he saw trouble coming from a long way. Today, it would seem that the horizon is just what the King warned about. See for yourself if the King was wrong or otherwise.
The conclusion from the two-day media blitz is obvious - the attack against Swaziland by the ‘secret army’ is imminent and PUDEMO has been found guilty of planning an armed insurgency. From the early 1980s when PUDEMO publicly announced its existence to the current debate, journalists from The Swazi Observer have impatiently waited for umgicomgico. On numerous occasions, they resurrected King Sobhuza II to offer support to the apocalyptic view. From the declaration of the State of Emergency in 1973 to contemporary political discourse, myths about umgicomgico have been an important aspect of the conservative ideology. Its influence is evident in the Commonwealth-sponsored Constitution Act of 2005 which prohibits political parties. As the property of the royal family, The Swazi Observer’s commitment to keeping this ideology alive should not surprise readers.

Whilst others may see the two-day frenzy as profiteering, the reaction represents a much deeper agenda – a conspiracy to politically marginalise PUDEMO locally and internationally. By perpetrating myths about a secret army, the media campaign has aimed to deconstruct PUDEMO’s identity as a peaceful democratic movement and reconstruct it as a terrorist organisation. If successful, this would have wide ranging implications for the struggle for democracy including our relationship with South Africa. It would create space for pro-monarchy and reformist organisations to subvert Swaziland’s journey towards multi-party democracy. So far the local media has worked to raise the profile of such organisations through partisan coverage of their activities. For example, Sibahle Sinje, a conservative political movement disguised as an advocate for democratic change, enjoys unfettered access to local media. PUDEMO has no such access and the local media’s bias against PUDEMO is well known. Indeed, it has conducted a number of campaigns to discredit the organisation. The current frenzy is another attempt to ruin the reputation of PUDEMO and deprive the Swazi people of one of the few organisations in the country which has taken on the responsibility for publicly reporting and criticising human rights abuses by the regime. As we have indicated in previous publications, local journalists are not interested in what PUDEMO is but what it is not. The frenzy over the ‘secret army’ thus tells the people of Swaziland nothing about security threats but more about the partisan media identity and conspiracy against PUDEMO.

PUDEMO defends the freedom of the press but deplores gutter journalism. As an organisation with strong commitments to the principles of freedom, we stood up against the government agenda to erode freedom of the press (see for example, Freedom of Speech Attacked, 2001). We have done the same against media organisations and journalists who abuse their business and professional privileges to vilify others. On a number of occasions, we expressed our disgust against media bias and irresponsible reporting (see for example, “Sexing Up Threats to National Security…, 2006). Media organisations and journalists are governed by sets of ethical codes of conduct and they must take responsibility for the choices they make. If they chose to abandon professional and responsible business practice in preference to a witch hunt against our organisation, they must take responsibility for this choice. PUDEMO will, as it has done in the past, challenge false accusations and protect its integrity. We will also continue to speak and write freely and will not allow our powers of thought and expression to be oppressed by fear of attack. We invite the media to have the same courage.

We believe that the current media frenzy has another, even more evil purpose – the politics of fear. Where a population is made to feel afraid of imminent attack, it will more easily give up its democratic rights and give authority to a dictator to do whatever it likes. Therefore, one way of increasing and maintaining control over a population is to manufacture external threats and/or exaggerate the significance of existing threats. Dictatorial regimes then represent themselves as the protecting arm of the nation. Often people feel grateful and indebted to the regime for offering protection. They don’t notice until it is too late that in fact the only place the strength has been used is to slowly increase the regime’s stranglehold around their necks.

In Swaziland, the government has embarked upon a deliberate path of cultivating fear in order to increase its control. The people are still nervous from the “petrol bombings” of 2005/2006, but just as they were beginning to feel safer, along comes the “secret army”. As we said in our last commentary, it is significant that this has happened close to Christmas, when people expect to feel safe and celebrate. We predict that there will be wave after wave of fear-inducing stories, each tenuously linked to PUDEMO with no real details or proof ever given. If the media wanted to really contribute to the freedom of speech and thought in Swaziland, they could run a competition to see who can guess what the topic of the next fear campaign will be. Perhaps it will be “PUDEMO gunrunning financed by the axis of evil” or “PUDEMO links to North Korea”.

The media has been totally irresponsible in its approach to this issue. There is a difference between exercising public responsibility and gutter journalism. Informing the public about well-founded fears of security threats is one thing, but using a fairy tale story to instil public fear is another thing. We support the former and deplore the latter. During the feeding frenzy on The Star story, the local print media (The Swazi Observer and The Times of Swaziland) have generated unnecessary public panic and instilled fear among the Swazi population. They have abused not only their business and professional privileges but also the trust of the people of Swaziland.

We are appalled by the absence of a culture of investigative journalism in Swaziland. There is scant evidence to suggest that either of these two newspapers has tried to investigate the story beyond the The Star article to test its credibility. Instead, the coverage has been based purely on hearsay. It is mind boggling that anyone would take this story seriously. All the newspapers which have fed on this innuendo have ignored the fictitious text which is so obviously displayed in The Star article. For example, why would someone train guerrillas in primary school classrooms? The covert campaign against PUDEMO by the local media has now been truly exposed for all to see. We invite the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) to take interest in the issues we have raised in this publication.


Dr. Jabulane Matsebula
PUDEMO Representative
Australia, Asia and the South Pacific Region

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

PUDEMO Press Statement on-A Secret Army or a Fairy Tale Story?

PUDEMO Press Statement on-A Secret Army or a Fairy Tale Story?
Date: November 28, 2006

The South African-based daily newspaper, The Star (25/11/06), reported to have uncovered a PUDEMO/SWAYOCO secret guerrilla training 'camp' and plans to violently overthrow the Swazi regime. According to the report, the camp is run by the Young Communist League. This story must go down in history as one of the greatest fairy tale stories that have been told about the Swaziland liberation movement. The Swazi Observer (27/11/06), a royal family-owned daily newspaper, was the first to reproduce The Star's report in Swaziland with a high degree of sensationalism. Although The Star does not mention the military capacity of this 'guerrilla unit', The Swazi Observer calls it "the deadly unit" (Ibid).

Readers should not be surprised by this report because in the past, there have been numerous fabricated stories of armed insurrection plans linked to PUDEMO and its youth wing, the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO). Each time, we remind our people, the international community and the media of our policy. We again take this opportunity to reiterate that our policy is to peacefully bring about political change in Swaziland. In his response to the report, the PUDEMO President, Cde Mario Masuku, unambiguously affirmed the organisation's commitment to this policy. Recently, Masuku told the Chris Hani Institute that PUDEMO believes that there is still hope for a peaceful dialogue with the regime.

Although the government has never responded to numerous calls from our organisation for a negotiated solution to the political crisis, we have not yet abandoned our policy. Unfortunately, the government has abused our commitment to peace by waging a violent witch-hunt against our membership. It has misinterpreted our non-violent resistance as an invitation for the state to use violence against us.

For more than twenty years, the regime has worked tirelessly to draw our organisation into a violent confrontation but we have maintained that we will not be drawn into such confrontation on the government's terms. Our policy priority is peace and restoration of political, social and economic harmony among our people. We are more interested in making life better for all Swazis than destroying it as this government has done for many years. This is what the regime fears – our capacity to make a difference and give Swazis a fresh start in life. The regime cannot engage with PUDEMO because it does not have the political competence to remain viable in an open democratic environment.

It is telling that the only time the government talks about PUDEMO is in relation to fairy tale stories. This time, the story is about an armed insurrection. In late 2005 and early 2006, the government peddled allegations of a PUDEMO/SWAYOCO petrol bombing campaign. The local media, particularly The Swazi Observer is guilty of giving unprecedented coverage of these slurs against our organisation. Both the government and The Swazi Observer have refused to engage with the substantive issues we continually raise about the future of this country and its people. Instead, they are concerned about protecting the political and economic privilege of the ruling royal family. The so-called training guerrilla camp is a rehashed old strategy to divert public attention away from the current corruption scandal involving senior government officials.

The timing of the report is interesting. It could herald the beginning of the treason trial against our members accused of the so-called petrol bombing campaign in December 2005. Several PUDEMO and SWAYOCO members were rounded up and accused of fire bombing government infrastructure. One of the accused was tortured to make false confession and subsequently turned into a state witness. However, he later withdrew his statement claiming that it was made under duress. This put the prosecution case at risk. The Directorate of Public Prosecution applied for an indefinite suspension of the trial whilst it searched for a new state witness and 'fresh evidence'. A year after the first arrests, our members are still awaiting trial. Could the report published in The Star be the 'smoking gun' the government is hoping to produce as evidence against our members?

Alternatively, the enthusiasm with which government officials have received The Star's story could be the beginning of another violent Christmas witch hunt against our membership. Renown for his hatred of the pro-democracy movement, the government spokesperson, Percy Simelane, warned of a massive crackdown ( The Swazi Observer, 27/11/06). In 2005, police tortured an innocent woman to death in their fanatic attempts to prove the existence of mythical PUDEMO 'petrol bombers'. As was the case in 2005, the government will use the training camp story to create unnecessary public panic and present itself as the guardian of peace in the hope that this will yield political benefits.

We have been waiting for some time for the regime to try to cash in on international fears of terrorism by trying to implicate PUDEMO in terrorist activities. Unfortunately, their attempts to do so have been characteristically incompetent. As we have mentioned, the attempt to construct a PUDEMO-led bombing campaign has been a spectacular failure. This latest attempt is also inept and should embarrass any self-respecting dictator.

Michael Schmidt, the author of The Star article, must hang his head in shame for allowing himself to be used by this evil regime. None of the people he contacted other than his so-called informant, confirmed the existence of a secret PUDEMO/SWAYOCO guerrilla army. Even the siSwati name of the 'guerrilla army' (uKukhulwa eMaswati) does not make sense – but then perhaps it is unfair of us to expect a non-Swazi to be competent in Siswati when he is writing fairy-tales. Schmidt writes that this "is an official yet underground armed wing of Pudemo…" but fails to support this with concrete evidence. Thus, the story lacks even the tiniest fragment of credibility. Michael Schmidt was a white apartheid supporter and a Communist hater fearful of the 'red plot' in the 1980s. He now hopes to use our liberation movement to mobilise the royal family in Swaziland to hunt the 'reds' under the beds. Anyone who believes in this story believes in Alice in Wonderland.

Dr. Jabulane Matsebula
PUDEMO Representative Australia, Asia and the South Pacific Region