Freedom of expression was at the heart of discussions at a UNESCO-supported round table on assessing the media landscape in Swaziland, which took place in Mbabane on 30 October. The round table, organized by the Swaziland Chapter of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA), with funds from UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), marked the start of a comprehensive assessment of the country’s media landscape.
Participants included executive staff from several key media outlets including The Swazi Observer, The Times of Swaziland, Independent News and Voice of the Church, the chairpersons of Swaziland’s main professional associations such as the National Association of Journalists, Editors Forum, the Swaziland Press Club and the Media Workers Union, and representatives of key civil society organizations including the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations and Lawyers for Human Rights, as well as journalism education institutions.
The Government was represented by Annelisa Stoffels, Acting Director of the Information and Media Development Department at the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.
The purpose of the project, as explained by UNESCO MDI Coordinator Saorla McCabe who travelled to Swaziland for the meeting, is to “engage national stakeholders in a process of constructive dialogue and self-reflection in order to identify the key media development priorities and discuss the most appropriate ways of addressing them.”
There was a wide consensus among participants about the utility of such a study in the Swazi context. Stoffels told the assembly that “the study comes at the right time”, explaining that “it will serve as we redraft the Bills [Books and Newspapers (Amendment) Draft Bill 2007 and Broadcasting Draft Bill 2007] before they go to Parliament.” Alec Lushaba, Chairperson of MISA Swaziland, stated the study would provide a “mirror of the media landscape” enabling the range of stakeholders involved to see where they stand and empower them to act upon the findings in order to together improve the situation of the media in the country.
In an interview at the end of the meeting, Lomcebo Dlamini, National Director of the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), said: “This is an exciting project. As civil society stakeholders we are looking forward to the findings and to the consultation. We do believe that as Swaziland moves towards being more democratic and more understanding of issues of human rights, this will also generate a better understanding of the role of the media can play. Hence the need to strengthen the media in those areas where the research reveals gaps.”
Mary da Silva, Member of NGO Lawyers for Human Rights (Swaziland), said the study could encounter some challenges, but would still be “very valuable for all of us, all stakeholders, opening up information sharing on the media environment.”
Representatives of journalism training institutions attending the meeting similarly perceived the study as providing a window of opportunity. Kemmonye Kamodi, Head of the Faculty of Communication at the Limkokwing University, expressed the wish that “at the end of this study, Government will rethink its sponsorship of journalism students”, following the suspension of scholarships for journalism students some years ago.
“As much as there may be challenges between Government and journalism, we still need journalists that are well trained so that they can show their professionalism when applying their journalism skills.”
Kamodi went on to say that she hoped that the recommendations of the MDI assessment would blend into the Swaziland Vision 2022, which spells out a number of development objectives to be achieved by Swaziland by 2022, and its accompanying National Development Strategy.
Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, lead researcher for the study and National Director of MISA Swaziland, explained that it was a UNESCO MDI report on Mozambique that inspired him to seek UNESCO’s support in launching a similar study in Swaziland. “Last year when surfing the Net I came across the Mozambique report. After reading it, I saw an opportunity for Swaziland”, said Hlatshwayo. He then spelled out his expectations regarding the study: “It will help the government understand what is wrong with the media situation in the country and will enable us to lobby from an informed position. The key strength of the MDI tool is that it is holistic, covering every aspect of media development.”
A similar view was expressed by Lomcebo Dlamini, SCCCO National Director. “This study comes at a time when there are a lot of issues at stake within our media landscape. There are issues with respect to freedom of expression, where our media are not free to delve into the issues that they need to delve into as they analyze what is happening in the country. There are issues in terms of antiquated legislation and a regulatory framework that is not suited for the needs of the media at this time. What is particularly exciting about it this project is that it brings together the various elements that need the media to work on. It is multi-faceted, multi-layered and inclusive of various stakeholders.”
The round table followed a two-day workshop with the members of the research team to define the modalities of application of the MDIs in the country. The project, which will be inclusive and participatory, will be based on a combination of research methods, including desk-based research, data collection and wide-ranging consultations. It is expected to be completed by May 2015.
The MDIs were endorsed in 2008 by the Intergovernmental Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication. MDI-based assessments have to date been completed in 13 countries and are ongoing in another 20 countries across all regions.