The Media Council Bill, 1997, was published by the Minister for Public Service and Information in October 1997. It had several major failings. In the first place, it had been drafted without any input from the press or any other stakeholders. Even more worrying was the implications of the bill's provisions on press freedom: The bill's purported objective is to promote responsible standards of journalism, give effect to a code of ethics for the media and establish a government-appointed media council. It also provides for the compulsory registration of journalists and a wide range of harsh disciplinary measures for those journalists who fall foul of the proposed law. In sum, the bill seeks to bring the entire practice of journalism in Swaziland under government control. The timing of the bill was particularly unfortunate given the fact that Swaziland is currently undergoing a process of democratisation and constitution-making. One would expect that it is at times such as these that freedom and independence of the media should be jealously guarded as the media is the most important avenue through which those in power can take cognisance of the demands of the people and through which the people can keep track of their government.
Recognising this fact, the media community in Swaziland and abroad galvanised to fight the proposed legislation. The offensive inside Swaziland has been led by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) though others, such as the Law Society and the Labour sector, have also made their voices heard. MISA-Swaziland organised a consultative forum on the bill on November 21-22, 1997 in Mbabane, in a last-ditch effort to have the bill deferred. The effort paid off. After much lobbying of MPs, when the bill came before Parliament on 24 November, MPs voted to defer it and appoint a select committee to receive the public's views before it could be debated. The committee took about three months to receive the public's views and compile its report.
ARTICLE 19 cautiously welcomes the report of the select committee. The fact of the committee having been appointed was itself a victory, as the government at least conceded the need for consultation with citizens, a concession endorsed by the committee in its recommendations. However, although the committee has clearly documented the concerns of stakeholders, the recommendations are vague in certain vital respects. Whereas the submission of stakeholders was that the bill be suspended for six months, whilst stakeholders came up with a self-regulatory mechanism, the committee has recommended that government and journalists should establish a self-regulatory media council within four months from the time the report is adopted and approved by Parliament. It is not clear what type of bipartisan mechanism that the committee has in mind.
A media council whose regulations are compulsorily drawn up partly by government cannot claim to be truly self-regulatory. Especially if the regulations have to be approved by Parliament and passed into law. Any act of establishing a media council by law brings the body under the control of the state and can neither be self-regulatory nor voluntary. It also carries with it the dangerous consequences of defining journalists by reference to minimum qualifications and registration. All these were found objectionable in the Media Council Bill and should not be reintroduced by the select committee through the back door. By forcing the appointment of a select committee, Swaziland journalists scored a major victory in a single battle, but they must not celebrate before the war is won. The experience in other African countries illustrates that concerted pressure must be kept up until the war is won.
In Zambia, the government staged a tactical retreat by indicating that it would no longer push for the Zambian Media Council Bill but insisting that the Independent Media Council, which journalists were setting up at the time, "must bring their document to my ministry [of information] so that it can go to Parliament for ratification." Zambian journalists refused to compromise, asserting that the minister's conception of a self-regulatory media driven body was mistaken. "Our document does not need to go to Parliament because it will be non-statutory and must not be criminalised. It does not need credence from government or any other body." Their continued insistence that the issue was non-negotiable eventually won the day. Swaziland journalists have already taken the principled stand to reject a statutory media council. In this stand, they are supported by many national and international bodies, including ARTICLE 19. They should remain steadfast and follow in the footsteps of their brethren in Tanzania and Zambia who have now set up their own independent non-statutory media councils.
Joanna Stevens and Njonjo Mue