King of Swaziland moves to silence social media critics

MBABANE -- Swaziland plans to ban users of Twitter and Facebook from criticizing King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch.

King Mswati III, center, with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe

MBABANE -- Lawmakers in Swaziland announced plans to ban users of Twitter and Facebook from criticizing King Mswati III. Mswati, Africa's last absolute monarch, has increasingly found himself the target of attacks from pro-democracy forces both within and outside the African kingdom.

Swaziland's justice minister, Mgwagwa Gamedze, told the Swazi senate in March, “We will be tough on those who write bad things about the king on Twitter and Facebook. We want to set an example.”

Swaziland is a tiny, landlocked nation the size of New Jersey with San Antonio's population surrounded entirely by South Africa and Mozambique. Yet this country that's often overshadowed by its neighbors has gained a fair amount of notoriety around the region. Swaziland has the ignoble distinction of having the world's highest HIV infection rate—more than a quarter of adults here live with the disease. It is the last absolute monarchy on the continent, and its King, Mswati III rules like the all-powerful head of state he is. Most of his 13 wives enjoy luxury cars and their own palaces. The displays of wealth have been characterized as extravagant in a country where the average household pulls in the equivalent of just over $5,000 a year.

The kingdom has stepped up efforts to silence critics, especially those that have gathered in popular groups on Facebook and who demand change on Twitter. Calls for protests have increased online, with some activists hoping to mirror the Arab Spring that swept across the north of the continent and deposed autocrats in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Swazi senator Thuli Msane blamed outside influences on the attacks on the monarchy, alluding to the effect of South African-based dissidents. “It’s like, the moment Swazi people cross the border to neighboring countries they begin to go on a campaign to disrespect their own country and king,” he said.

“Surely there is something that must be done with them. There must be a law that can take them to task.”

The senators hope that the law may help stem the tide of increased protests of the monarchy, but activists say that banning speech will do little to fix a system that’s fundamentally broken.

"It's stupid, but of course we're not surprised," said Lucky Lukhele of the Swaziland Solidarity Network, a pro-democracy organization headquartered in Johannesburg. "They say the kick of a dying horse is the most dangerous."

Largely because of mismanagement and the ballooning cost of maintaining a monarchy, the International Monetary Fund warned of a financial meltdown in the country.

Photos: flickr/salymfayad and UN Photo

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