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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

The Swazi system

THIS SUCKS. My first reaction was rather primitive. But that’s what I thought on Saturday - 20 April 2013 - when I learned that a good Swazi colleague, Bheki Makhubu, had been found guilty of “contempt by scandalising the court”. Bheki – I’ll call him by his first name, as I know him – is the Editor-in-Chief of The Nation, one of the very few independent media outlets in Swaziland. The magazine has lived up to its slogan (“We speak truth to power”), and now Bheki is paying a price.

The Swaziland High Court convicted Bheki on Wednesday - 17 April 2013. He has to pay a hefty fine (equalling US$45,000 or €34,000), and if not, he faces two years in prison. The verdict is part of a media crackdown. The details can be read in an Amnesty International bulletin and a statement by MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa).

TRYING TO BE a bit less primitive and a bit more analytical, I have three points to make: 1) personal 2) freedom of the press 3) Swaziland.

PERSONAL: I got to know Bheki in Kenya last year. We both participated in a round table for African (and Finnish) journalists, organised by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. A good week it was. Bheki is a hearty kind of a guy who certainly takes his audience. He’s my age (in his forties), and a heck of a debater. I wouldn’t like to end up on a podium against him, he’d chew me to pieces, no matter the topic, be it Finnish domestic politics. Over the course of a week in September 2012, in Kenya, I had excellent discussions with Bheki. I was the one doing the listening, and gladly so. I learned a thing or two from Bheki. He described how a system like Swaziland works. I’ll come back to that later (but I want to emphasise the opinions in this article are my own).

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS: In most countries, it doesn’t really exist. Every time I hear about a case like Bheki’s (happens almost on a daily basis) I learn to appreciate freedom of the press a bit more.
This may sound lofty. It’s not. It’s very concrete. I can take on anyone in my country without fear of consequences, and for way too long I took this privilege for granted.

Bheki Makhubu in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2012

SWAZILAND: It’s a tiny country squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique. It’s roughly the size of Slovenia or New Jersey with a population of 1.2mn. A wonderful country – in theory. Swaziland is one of the last absolute monarchies on Earth, ruled by King Mswati III. That’s who Bheki was indirectly criticising in his “scandalising the court” articles, by taking on the so-called justice system.

I’ve once visited Swaziland. Back in 2002, I spent a few days in the capital Mbabane and surrounding areas. There was lots – and lots – of poverty. Subsistence farming seemed to be the rule. I was on holidays, but of course I talked to people. It was easy to figure out that Swaziland was (and still is) the King’s fief, an autocracy based on the rule of fear. A tiny corrupt elite runs the show and eats the fruits collected by others.

I COULD GO ON and on about Swaziland. But just one more point: I have a simple small country theory.

International attention given to a country correlates almost directly with its size. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule - such as Israel and the Vatican - but, in general, the smaller the country, the less political and media focus it gets.

I can easily relate to this, coming from a small remote country myself. But there’s an obvious difference. Finland doesn’t really need any attention. Other places would deserve some. Size matters, and this is excellent news for autocrats like King Mswati III of Swaziland. It’s so easy for us to ignore twisted realities in small places. And so, the autocrats can do as they please.

This sucks.

Heikki Aittokoski