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Swazi Observer policy on defamation claims subjects journalists to injustice, undermines press freedom

Saturday, 21st November, 2020

The new policy proposed by the Swazi Observer that seeks to impose fines on its employees for loss of revenue over defamation claims does not only amounts to injustice but a threat to media freedom.

Firstly, it is important for the management and the Board of Directors whose Chairman is Sthofeni Ginindza to understand that junior reporters have no power to take final decisions regarding the publication of stories, this remains the prerogative of editors and it remains unjust to punish reporters on issues far above their jurisdiction. 

The chain of command within the newsroom suggests that journalists are expected to submit story ideas to the line editors who then commission the investigation and or gathering of information before taking a final decision on whether the amount of evidence collected justifies the publication of that story. 

It is therefore of paramount importance to state that the vicarious liability on all defamation claims should be upon the company and the editor who commands authority and take final decisions whether to publish or drop stories. Personally, knowing the massive corruption that manifest in the media masterminded by editors that subsequently resulted to the complete disregard of journalism ethics, it would be advisable for the Board and the management to monitor the lifestyle of the editors because most of these stories that attracted defamation claims are allegedly linked to corruption where editors scandalise innocent citizen as their separate money generating project.

But apart from the corruption, it is important to emphasise that editors represents the employer in the newsroom, it hardly happen that a journalist can publish a story without the approval of the editor. 

Therefore, vicarious liability, in this regard arose where the editor who was entrusted by the employer to supervise the newsroom and take decisions on behalf of the employer acted negligently and failed to exercise good leadership on junior reporters by giving them guidance and advice on stories that might attract legal action. 

Perhaps, it is of paramount importance to state that instead of imposing such policy that might promote self-censorship, the Observer Management and Board of Directors should prepare a budget to train their editors on law of defamation to avoid losing revenue on lawsuits. But it should be understood that training should be complemented by personal integrity, we have editors in this country who are ethical only on paper, corruption has blinded them such that they long ignored their fundamental duty to hold government accountable, instead, they resorted to attacking innocent people and the powerless as a way of proving their relevance in the media, some of those victims opted to go to court while others are still seeking legal advice. 

The problem with most editors  is that some of them are paid to push agendas of the various cliques in the country using  newspapers thus exposing their companies to lawsuits by disregarding journalism ethics.

I am privileged to understand the conduct and the thinking capacity of almost all the editors in this country, thats why I am aware that they sometimes write articles under junior reporters names and attack people as part of their personal income generating projects, the victim who might not be skilled to understand the style of writing will blame the junior journalist for an article that was written by the editor to push his agenda.

Recently, I read an article in the Sunday Observer by one Sibusiso Dlamini titled “A historic sweet victory for mainstream journalists”, surprisingly but the style of writing was that of editor Kenneth Dlamini. 

It happened three years ago that an article attacking Eswatini MTN was published by the same newspaper in favour of Swazi Mobile under Sports journalist Sibusiso Masilela's name, one wondered  how a sports reporter who was junior at the time authored an article that was addressing the politically motivated competition battle of the two mobile companies, the style of writing was that of Mbongeni Mbingo who was Victor Gamedze’s boy at the time.

Sthofeni will recall that the Management of MTN wrote a hot letter threatening to take legal action against the newspaper and withdraw adverts  because it was clear that the editors were used to fight competition battles and some of them were allegedly paid on sidelines to promote Swazi Mobile, shortly after that letter, the newspaper stopped scandalising MTN.

Even though it might be a good idea to introduce the policy as a deterrence measure, it might produce results if it can target the people with authority to publish stories not junior reporters, I am one of those who long took a position that captured and corrupt editors should be made to taste their own medicine.

Even in the case of former Swazi Observer Managing Director Alpheous Nxumalo who was falsely branded HIV positive by the newspaper and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the newspaper, the late Thulani Tfwala was conflicted on the grounds that Nxumalo had previously suspended him with Alec Lushaba and in terms of the Prevention of Corruption Act undeclared conflict of interest amounts to corruption.

Therefore, it is unjust for the management to target junior reporters and fine them for loss of revenue, these journalists have no power to decide on the publication of stories, they are sometimes instructed by editors to target people and once those people pay the bribes, the editors come back again and instruct the reporter to drop the story.

The Swazi Observer management and the Board should strictly warn editors against pushing their separate projects using the newspaper to generate their own revenue, alternatively an investigation should be conducted and those found to be receiving monies from the corrupt should be fired.

Corruption in government has rendered this country broke and these editors should take the blame as well, they are no longer writing in the public interest but target individuals like  Alpheous Nxumalo who was embarrassed in the whole country after being falsely branded HIV positive, this was done by a seasoned journalist who was unfortunately blinded by the desire to fight his battles using the newspaper thus exposing it to lawsuits.

In conclusion, it is of paramount importance to emphasize that the junior reporters should not be blamed for defamation stories, they are sometimes bullied and threatened with dismissal by the editors if they don’t take instructions, as a result, editors should be held accountable by the company for loss of revenue that resulted from their negligence.

Swazi Observer policy on defamation claims subjects journalists to injustice, undermines press freedom
Swaz Observer Board Chairman Sthofeni Ginindza