- The High Court of Swaziland yesterday turned down a motion by the lawyer of an alleged killer of 34 women to ban media reports of the highly profiled trial, claiming Swazi media "are unprofessional". Swazi press freedom groups celebrate the victory and have offered to pay for the legal costs of media if their reporting should be taken to court.
Yesterday, the Mbabane High Court heard the case of a lawyer representing a suspected serial killer asking it to ban media coverage of the historic case. The suspect, David Simelane, is charged with murdering 34 women between 1999 and 2001. His state appointed and paid lawyer Lucky Howe expressed dissatisfaction with the media reports on the case. He said the quality of reports and the impressions they give created some "difficulties for the case".
Mr Howe argued that the court was not a public place and that the media were not professional. Instead, he said, Swazi media were being irresponsible in their manner of reporting on the case. Acting Chief Justice Jacobus Annandale however disagreed, saying the right of the public to information could not be undermined at the behest of an individual.
Justice Annandale was quoted by the 'Swazi Observer' as saying that, what was required of the press in an open society was to be vigilant commentators, reporters and publishers. "However, the media must act reasonably, fairly and responsibly in disseminating information," he had added.
The Swaziland chapter of the Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Swaziland) quickly got involved in the case, which was seen as yet another attempt to gag the press in the kingdom. MISA-Swaziland paid for lawyer Musa Sibandze, who appeared for the media in the Mbabane High Court. MISA also promised to pay further legal costs if Mr Howe would go further with his complaints.
The press freedom organisation lamented the lawyer's attack on Swazi media as unfortunate, unjustified and unnecessary. "It is MISA's view that if lawyer Howe had a problem with the quality of reporting on the case, he had a right to complain but not in the manner he did. Media houses have established channels to receive and deal with complaints from the public, including lawyers," said Michael Motsa of MISA-Swaziland.
Also the press in Swaziland - which is strongly restricted by draconic media laws and forced to exert self-censorship - today celebrated the failure of the "media gag" attempt. Sabelo Mamba of the 'Swazi Observer' called the incident "an uncivilised attempt by [a] disgraced lawyer ... to gag the media from covering the sensational trial."
The case against Mr Simelane naturally has generated a lot of interest in Swaziland. It is the first case of its kind in the small kingdom. In particular, Swazi women have been outraged by the statements made by the suspect, seemingly motivated by a deep anger towards women in general.
The suspect claimed in a statement before a magistrate that he killed the 34 women in revenge. He claimed that a few years ago he was falsely accused of rape by a woman and was jailed. After his jail term he vowed to take revenge by killing any woman he came across.
He allegedly strangled and stabbed his victims and threw their bodies in forests around the country. The victims included babies and women of all ages. The skeletons of all 34 victims were discovered in 2001 in Malkerns and other areas around Swaziland.
Several of the murdered women had gone missing for one year, some unreported by their families. They were only identified after Mr Simelane led police to their graves after he was arrested in 2001. The case has led to a public discussion about the low status of women in the kingdom.
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