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Wife No. 8 proves royal pain for king

Swaziland: Of hundreds of dancing maidens, African monarch picks out a high school dropout. He loses face, and an editor loses his job.

October 14, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

The decision to prosecute Makhubu was made by Lincoln Ng'arua, director of public prosecutions. Under a law dating to colonial times, he accused the editor of using "immoderate words" calculated to expose the king's fiancee to "contempt and undue ridicule," bring the royal household into disrepute and "offend a substantial and respectable proportion of the Society."

"This does not mean we have gagged the press," Ng'arua said in a statement. "I stand firm for the voiceless young lady, of only 18, who has been depicted in the worst possible light at a time when the whole nation was celebrating her gentle rise in the distant horizons.

"Who can slander the full moon in its wake and not incur wrath of the spirits?"

Makhubu, freed on $500 bail but stripped of his passport, takes pride in his profession.

"In the past, I have not been the kind of journalist who makes a lot of politicians comfortable," he said. "Let's say I spoiled too many Sunday breakfasts. It was their intention to get at me."

Makhubu, who has almost doubled the Sunday edition circulation from 9,000 to 16,000 since he became editor in 1993, printed the story Sept. 12.

The front page carried a photograph of Masango, wearing only a skirt, feathers, necklace and anklets for the "reed dance," held annually to revere the Queen Mother and to allow young girls to try to attract the attention of the king.

The headline read: "Liphovela [fiancee] a high school dropout."

"Isn't she lovely?" said the front-page text. "Rather naughty at school though."

The edition sold out and provoked widespread criticism from readers outraged over the intrusion into royal privacy.

"The clear message was: `OK, we read it, but why are you telling us this? We don't want to know,' " said Makhubu. "They felt the king has a private life and that this young lady deserved privacy, too.

"My argument was: not necessarily so. She could easily bear the next king. In any case, the natural reaction from any normal person after she was chosen was: Who is she? And who better to answer that question than the media.

"It is unfortunate that what we picked up was not exactly positive. But that question had to be asked."

Graduate and the dropout

Eric Zwane, principal at Ngwane Park High School, confirmed the details in the newspaper story. Masango transferred to Ngwane in February and disappeared in April. She should still be attending class for graduation next year, said Zwane.

After the story appeared, Makhubu was questioned by the police for his sources. He refused to disclose them.

In the next Sunday edition, he printed another picture of Masango, this time sitting at last month's graduation ceremony at the University of Swaziland. Next to her was one of the king's wives, wearing her academic gown. The headline contrasted "the dropout" with "the graduate."

Two days later, Makhubu was arrested while driving into Mbabane, the country's capital, held overnight and charged.

The newspaper, which initially supported him, reversed itself after the media meeting at the palace and demanded that he apologize for causing embarrassment, he said. He refused. It offered him a severance package, which he also declined. Then he was fired. Attempts to obtain comment from the newspaper failed.

Of the country's four major media outlets, the Times of Swaziland is the only independent newspaper. The competing Observer is owned by a royal trust, and both television and radio are controlled by the government.

World's journalists take note

The arrest of the journalist attracted the attention of local and international media organizations.

Swaziland's National Association of Journalists demanded that the criminal charge against Makhubu be dropped and that he be reinstated by the newspaper.

The Paris-based media group Reporters Sans Frontiers warned that the incident could provoke "more repressive" laws and said, "We fear that, angered by this article which involved him directly, the king may decide to impose a very strict system against journalists."

In neighboring South Africa, the Star newspaper said, "The young king tampers with what is left of press freedom in the kingdom at his peril -- and at great risk to his country's economic, social and political future."

The Clinton administration, committed to increasing democracy, including freedom of the press, throughout Africa, has kept publicly silent on the issue for fear of jeopardizing modernization moves in Swaziland. But it has privately informed the government of its concern.

Makhubu was more outspoken.

"One of the things that Swaziland faces as a nation is the position of the press in our conservative, traditional society," he said. "The press really has a place beyond working as a public relations system for the government."

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