From Swazi Media Commentary
An Archbishop in Swaziland has criticised the way members of parliament (MPs) use the radio to ‘chat’ to their constituents, rather than going to see them and talk face to face.
He also said that the MPs talk about ‘non issues’ such as mourning the dead rather than about matters that affect the people who elected them.
The comments from Archbishop Jameson Mncina, head of the Efiliphi Church in Zion, were published in the Swazi Observer newspaper yesterday (Wednesday 20 February 2008).
The Observer reported the Archbishop saying that MPs rely on the national radio to ‘chat’ with their constituencies. He was referring to a series of programmes that recently started on the state-controlled Swaziland Broadcasting Information Service (SBIS) radio. Each MP is being given the chance to go on radio at 6.15 in the morning to talk about matters that interest them.
The Observer reported the Archbishop saying, ‘Instead of going to the people at the grass-roots level where they were elected, they now create a barrier by talking to the people over the radio. They no longer have contact with the people. How many people listen to the 6.15 morning programme?’
The Archbishop was further reported saying that after MPs were elected they were expected to return to the people and organise meetings with them rather than talk to them ‘through gadgets of mass communication’.
The Archbishop went on to criticise MPs for talking about ‘non issues’ such as food aid distribution and, he was reported saying, they mourn dead members of society ‘and they give a colourful picture of the effects of destitution’.
The Archbishop has a point if MPs are deliberately avoiding their constituents by going on the radio. A conscientious MP would both appear on radio and visit the grass roots.
But radio should not be ignored by MPs. Radio is a very important medium in a developing country such as Swaziland. Radio is by far the best way of getting messages out to the largest number of people in the kingdom.
Figures contained in the African Media Barometer – Swaziland 2007, published recently by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Swaziland Chapter report estimate that SBIS, which has two channels, can reach about 95 percent of the population (of about one million people).
Radio is broadcast in the local language siSwati, as well as in English. This means that just about everyone in the kingdom can understand what is being broadcast. Unlike when reading newspapers, the listener does not have to be literate to understand what is being said on the radio.
The programme that includes MPs is a new programme and it is no coincidence that it has been started in the run up to Swaziland’s national elections which are due to take place later this year (2008). Sceptics might say that this is giving sitting MPs the chance to remind their constituents who they are so that they will vote for them again when the elections come.
SBIS should be congratulated for thinking about how it can give good coverage to the election. After the last election in 2003, SBIS received mixed responses over its coverage.
As I wrote before in a report on the way the election was conducted the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa praised SBIS for allowing all candidates to canvass in the airwaves for about five minutes.
However, the Commonwealth Expert Team (CET) in a report found broadcasting coverage of the election in Swaziland ‘disappointing’.
SBIS carried short items by the candidates early in the morning, but there was little news about the election and in the week up to the poll and the CET said it heard no discussion programmes or any other substantial coverage.
The CET also criticised radio coverage on the election day itself, because the fact that it was election day was not even mentioned on the early morning news.
The date of the election day in 2008 has yet to be announced, but it is widely expected to be in October or November. This gives SBIS time to organise coverage and to make sure that people in Swaziland get a proper chance to be educated about the election itself and also to hear from candidates and others about the main issues that people should be considering when choosing an MP.
To be truly useful to people in Swaziland at the time of the election, SBIS must provide air time to all candidates and allow them to be questioned by listeners. Radio phone-in shows could be a good way of doing this. SBIS must also choose a number of topics that are important to ordinary people in the kingdom and produce programmes around them. For example, programmes about health, education, water roads as well as the ever-present topic of corruption could be broadcast.
These programmes should allow people of all opinions (not just the ruling elite) to debate the topics and SBIS should not be afraid to allow dissenting voices (and not just the traditionalists) to be heard.
SBIS has a golden opportunity to prove to people in Swaziland - as well as to the listening world outside - that it is capable of behaving in the same way as radio stations in democratic countries.
First published 21 February 2008