Swazi media workers protest conditions at king’s newspaper
Higher pay, union membership, nepotism, and more, are at the center of the struggle, reports Peter Kenworthy.
Members of the Media Workers Union of Swaziland (MWUS) have gathered near the offices of the Swazi Observer for several days to protest low wages, management intimidation and poor working conditions. The union was barred from holding an actual picket by Swaziland’s High Court.
Negotiations between the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned and controlled by absolute monarch King Mswati III, and MWUS had started in April, but no real progress has been made since they became deadlocked in June.
Fair pay and decent working conditions
The union demands a 25 per cent pay rise, that senior reporters ought to be allowed to be members of a union of their choice, an end what it calls job promotion nepotism and intimidation of union-affiliated members, newly serviced cars that are safe to drive, proper medical aid and the resignation of the managing director.
According to a statement released by MWUS in June, the Swazi Observer management countered by offering no pay rise and the newspapers’ managing director said that management would ‘plant intelligence within all the departments of the company’, something that was condemned by the union as ‘threat and intimidating antics’.
‘There is an employee who earns as little as $113 a month and many of our members are subject to risky conditions as they are made to drive cars which have long stopped being serviced. One member reported a car he was driving had its steering wheel disconnecting while the car was in motion,’ Secretary General of MWUS Sicelo Vilane told members gathered outside the offices of the Swazi Observer on Monday.
An hour after he held his speech, Sicelo Vilane was approached by an intelligence officer who introduced himself only as ‘Mkhwanazi,’ who told Vilane that the police wished to ‘form part of the negotiations as a third party’. MWUS sees this as a measure of intimidation against the union.
There are also indications that Sicelo Vilane might be arrested for contempt of court for allegedly defying a court order that barred the protesting workers from entering the premises of the Swazi Observer, even though he is adamant that none of the union members had done so and that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of him or the union.
Media censorship and harassment
There have been many previous indications that all is not well at the Swazi Observer and in the Swazi media in general. In 2009, Swazi Observer managing editor Mbongeni Mbingo nearly lost his job for publishing a piece on the king’s fleet of luxury cars. He later wrote, in an article published on the website of the Freidrich Ebert Stiftung, that ‘the press in Swaziland is largely expected to toe the line and be a lapdog not a watchdog.’
In their 2015 ‘Freedom of the Press’ report, American research-NGO Freedom House describes how king Mswati ‘further restrained an already weakened media environment in Swaziland, [where] both journalists and media outlets were targeted by officials through the use of restrictive legislation’ and how ‘the government withholds advertising contracts from critical media outlets’.
According to the Human Rights Watch 2016 world report, ‘journalists and activists [in Swaziland] who criticized the government were often harassed and arrested ... Many journalists practiced self-censorship, especially with regard to reports involving the king to avoid harassment by authorities’.
Peter Kenworthy is a journalist with Afrika Kontakt.
Look out for the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist magazine exploring possibilities for a 21st-century revival of organized workers’ movements around the world: Trade Unions – rebuild, renew, resist
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