In recent times, eSwatini found herself at the center of a discussion that dates back many years: media regulation, or lack thereof.

On February 14, 2024, Prime Minister Russell Dlamini told the Eswatini Editors Forum that failure by the media to self-regulate will lead to the government stepping in. This was interpreted by many to mean the government was threatening to enact the Media Commission Bill meant to create a government-controlled media regulation body. A few years ago, the Editors Forum set up the Media Complaints Commission, a self-regulation body that is, sadly, still not yet operational. Prime Minister Russell acknowledged the challenges of operationalizing this body. Among other things, he raised concern over poor salaries and working conditions in some publications that are making record-high profits year in and year out. Former president of the Swaziland National Association of Journalists and now Mbabane East Member of Parliament, Welcome Dlamini, also said the Media Commission Bill should be revived if the media fails to regulate itself.

In a February 19 News 24 article on the country’s media regulation debate, the executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression, Anton Harber, highlighted that the threat of government regulation is a common thread across several Southern African countries.

“In South Africa, the ANC threatened for some time to impose a statutory Media Tribunal because it felt the self-regulatory Press Council was not tough enough on the media. Although the party passed a series of conference resolutions on the matter, it has not taken the matter forward. The Botswana government has enacted a law invoking a Media Council, but has not set it up yet,” wrote Harber.

Harber concluded by highlighting that moves to set up independent self-regulatory bodies in several countries have been flagged, largely due to financial issues, South Africa being the exception, with an active Press Council in place.

In eSwatini, the discussion on media regulation has taken center stage in recent times, obviously brought back to the table by the Prime Minister given the government’s interest in the matter. Of course, there was a huge outcry following the Prime Minister’s statement, with media and other players warning that the country should not take the state regulation direction. Media must self-regulate, many thought. Also worth noting was the glaring disconnect and incoherence in government policy posture with ICT Minister Savannah Maziya backing self-regulation while his boss spoke a different language. Quite recently, there has been an effort to support the efforts to self-regulate.

What is interesting is that the country gets animated each time such issues are discussed, which makes one conclude that the nation is always hungry for debates on how to move the country forward, in this case, media advancement.

But, first things first: what exactly do we mean by regulation and media regulation to be precise? The government makes laws that are passed by parliament and therefore any industry that is regulated is controlled by government rules, as seen in industries such as finance and others. There is usually a statutory body entrusted with the responsibility of regulating or promoting self-regulation of the provision of certain services. This is done for various reasons, the obvious one being the protection of consumers and the general public and ensuring compliance with certain market rules. In the case of media, there should be a balance between press freedoms or rights and obligations since there is always an expectation for the media to exercise its rights and privileges responsibly, hence regulation.

When it comes to the media, things are different. Given its role as a fourth estate, the media provides a linkage between the rulers and the ruled and society’s eyes and ears, especially to check the other three branches of the state. The media helps society by providing oversight, scrutiny, and demanding transparency from those who exercise power. This conceptualizes the media as an unofficial but powerful pillar of democratic governance, playing a crucial role in holding power to account and representing the interests of the public.

It is therefore important that the media self-regulates to avoid compromising its independence. Media self-regulation mechanisms, like press councils or ombudspersons, are tasked with ensuring that professional journalists adhere to recognized quality benchmarks, all the while maintaining independence from governmental, business, and foreign influence. Surely, it only makes sense for such a pillar to self-regulate, isn’t it?

In a UNESCO paper titled “The Importance of Self-Regulation of the Media Regulation in Upholding Freedom of Expression, Andrew Puddephat makes several important points on the dual character of the media. “Firstly, it is a site which permits the free exchange of ideas and opinion necessary in a democracy and which is therefore deserving of the highest protection and freedom from state interference. Secondly, it is a social actor in its own right, whose choices about whether or how to cover events and whose editorial position can also shape events and in that way is required to act in a socially responsible fashion. It is this dual character that makes an effective form of self-regulation so essential,” posits Puddephatt.

In eSwatini, the question that must be asked is whether the socio-economic and political landscape is conducive for everyone to enjoy basic fundamental rights in general and the freedom of the press in particular. Despite the guarantees of certain rights in our national constitution, the enjoyment of such rights has always been found wanting, at least with the known cases such as the arrest of Thulani Maseko and the editor of The Nation magazine Bheki Makhubu in 2014. The two were arrested by the late former Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi on charges of “scandalizing the judiciary” and “contempt of court” following the publication of articles criticizing the judicial system.

Given this context, it would therefore not be an abstract assumption to conclude that the media regulation statement by the government was viewed as a move to use it as a continuation of what many view as repression of media freedoms.

In 2018, the African Media Barometer report revealed:

“Several laws in the country restrict freedom of expression and often interfere with the functions of the media. Although eSwatini is a signatory to several regional and international instruments on freedom of expression and freedom of the media, these instruments have not been domesticated. The country has approximately 32 laws that restrict freedom of expression and media freedom. While many countries in Africa are doing away with criminal defamation laws, eSwatini still has this law on the statute book and it is sometimes used to punish the media for investigative reporting. The offense of contempt of court has also been used to suppress freedom of expression. For example, in 2014 Bheki Makhubu, editor in charge of The Nation, and his co-accused human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko, spent 15 months in prison for contempt of court. ESwatini journalists work in a highly restrictive environment where they either avoid certain stories or ‘water them down’ to avoid harsh consequences – such as the one that befell Makhubu and Maseko. These laws make it risky for journalists to conduct their duties without fear.”

However, the government should be supported in working with the media, civil society, and development partners to help the media finally self-regulate so that the media itself can play fair and ethical for everyone. What cannot be denied is that the media has failed, over a period of over 20 years—whatever the reasons—to self-regulate and have an independent ombudsman. Some blame the state media companies for not coming to the party and leaving everything in the hands of one or two media entities. This in and of itself calls for opening up the media space to new players to allow the emergence and licensing of new TV, radio, and online publications to operate freely to enhance media vibrancy and ensure that the public benefits freely from the democratization of media space in the country. The emergence of online publications or even social media pages operating under the banner of the media can only mean we need to start a serious conversation about bringing new players to the centre of discussion to ensure the development of the country and the media while ensuring the public’s rights are also protected.

Therefore, we need to make sure that we problematize the discussion and avoid a shallow or limited approach that will lead to misdiagnosis of the problems and opportunities. The self-regulation of the media discussion and process must therefore be seen in the context of presenting itself with the opportunity to move the industry and the country forward.

The Prime Minister and the government’s demand for fair remuneration of journalists should be welcomed. But the discussion is far bigger than that. We need to build and fund the media industry, support media research, ensure adequate facilities for upcoming media practitioners, and proper training of media practitioners or journalists, link traditional media with other sources of knowledge production, invest in legislative and policy reform to level the playing field and provide a conducive environment for media freedoms. That is why this means a far more complex discussion that needs the government, media, civil society, business, academia, and development partners. It is commendable that, already, partners such as the US embassy, UN, EU, and others are doing a lot to support the media in different aspects. We can build on that as we move towards developing the industry and ensuring the protection and promotion of media freedoms and the rights to access information.

Lastly, online media is here and it seems to be the future. The democratization of knowledge and the emergence of online media and social media pages can only mean we cannot wish them away but must help them professionalize. We need proper transition and onboarding of these so that our media industry development process extends beyond the orthodox media. People have smartphones and now access news in the comfort of their phones and this means online media has more influence than traditional.

Underscoring the importance of digital media, prominent media scholar Henry Jenkins, said:

"The rise of digital media has fundamentally transformed the way we produce, distribute, and consume information. Online platforms have democratized access to knowledge, empowering individuals to participate in the creation and dissemination of content. As traditional media outlets grapple with this paradigm shift, it is imperative that we recognize the influence and potential of online media in shaping the future of communication."

We need everyone on board, and we should broaden the discussion. And, happy World Press Freedom Day!

N.B. Mabuza is a Chartered Public Relations Practitioner with 15 years of experience working with the media. He writes this article in his personal capacity, as a contribution to enhancing the media discourse in eSwatini.