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

No comments: