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Journalist Mantoe Phakathi faces gender discrimination, prevented from covering opening of Parliament; media threatened with sedition charge if they criticise King's address

(MISA/IFEX) - On 6 February 2009, Mantoe Phakathi, a female journalist with the privately-owned "Nation" magazine, was harassed and barred from covering the state opening of the Swazi Parliament for no other reason other than that she is female.

Parliament officials, who included state journalists assigned to ensure that journalists were orderly during the function, first warned Phakathi that since she was female she would not be allowed to take pictures of the King.

At first, Phakathi took lightly of the warning because she said she had never heard or read of such a rule in her entire career. But as she went about her duties inside the chambers of Parliament, the Clerk at Table of the House of Assembly, Ndvuna Dlamini, an ex journalist himself, ordered that Phakathi be expelled. This was despite the fact that she had been accredited to cover the event.

The journalist tried in vain to find reasons for her removal. She was eventually thrown out by security personnel. Speaking to journalists after the embarrassing episode, Phakathi said she felt very humiliated in that she was the only journalist to be thrown out of the House.

"Nation" editor Bheki Makhubu said it came as a shock to him to learn about the harassment and expulsion of his journalist from Parliament.

"Because of this we don't have the pictures and story about the opening of Parliament. There is nothing we can do as we are a small publication but we are not happy about the sexist act by the government," Makhubu said.

The Clerk at Table claimed that Phakathi was not dressed properly since she had not covered her head, hence her expulsion.

MISA's Swaziland chapter has issued a statement condemning the discriminatory and sexist act by the officials and has demanded that the government and Parliament apologise to Phakathi and to the "Nation" magazine for this act which was clearly humiliating to the journalist.

In a separate development, on 10 February, the government threatened to charge with sedition anyone who criticises, in the media, the state of the nation address delivered by King Mswati III during the state opening of the parliament on 6 February.

The threat follows statements by a number of media commentators that the King's speech was stale and seriously lacked substance. The critics said the King failed to address key issues affecting the country including HIV/AIDS and poverty, despite the fact that Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world and increasing poverty. The King's address made no mention of these issues.

In a move widely seen as intended to silence the country's citizens, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini waved the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act 1968 and threatened to charge anyone who criticises the King over the address.

Among those threatened was Mfomfo Nkambule, who was recently harassed by state police and traditional structures for criticising the King's leadership style. Nkambule was among those who raised concern about the lack of substance in the King's speech and criticised those who drafted the address for the King.

The Prime Minister, in response, said any view on the King's address should be presented in a language and manner that showed respect to the office of the monarch. He said the King had a reputation and enjoyed the protection of the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act. The PM said his government will not hesitate to charge with sedition anyone who further criticises the King's speech.

MISA's Swaziland chapter has issued a statement condemning the government threat which has the potential to muzzle people and appealed for tolerance within the dictates of freedom of expression which is guaranteed in the country's constitution.

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