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‘New Frame’ journalists detained, assaulted and tortured by security forces in eSwatini

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On Sunday 4 July 2021, two New Frame journalists, Magnificent Mndebele and Cebelihle Mbuyisa, who were on assignment in eSwatini were detained, assaulted and tortured by security forces.

Mndebele and Mbuyisa were in eSwatini to report on the pro-democracy protests with a specific focus on the state murder of citizens. While in the country, they were stopped at roadblocks on a number of occasions, threatened and forced to delete material from their phones and camera.

On Thursday 1 July, Mbuyisa received a WhatsApp message, explicitly presented as a warning, from a person known to be close to the royal family, who said that he should “not make any movements”.

Shortly after 9am on Sunday, the two were stopped by soldiers on the MR3 highway near the town of Matsapha while returning from the funeral of Vincent Bhembe in Ngculwini. Bhembe was allegedly shot by security forces on 30 June and died in hospital the following day. New Frame’s journalists were threatened at gunpoint, their cameras were seized and they were forced to delete important footage and photographs from the funeral, including interviews with people who had been shot and injured.

Mndebele and Mbuyisa were then taken to the nearby Sigodvweni Police Station, where they were interrogated and assaulted with punches and kicks. Plastic bags were placed over their heads to suffocate them. This act, sometimes described as “tubing”, is globally recognised as a form of torture. In South Africa, it was widely used by apartheid security forces and continues to be used against grassroots activists in police stations today.

When news of the arrests was received, New Frame’s Johannesburg-based lawyers, Cheadle Thompson & Haysom Inc – a law firm with a long history of working with trade unions and other progressive organisations and actors – briefed a lawyer based in eSwatini to locate their whereabouts and secure their urgent release. Following a swift and effective intervention from the lawyer, the two young men were released at around 3pm.

Following their release, Mndebele and Mbuyisa were taken to hospital. They were warned that it would be too dangerous to head for the border that night as police, soldiers and correctional officers were positioned at multiple roadblocks along the main highways. They spent the night in Mbabane, where they were given refuge and cared for by an ordinary citizen who works as a cleaner.

During this entire ordeal and also before they were detained, it was very difficult to keep in touch with the two journalists as internet communication in the country had been severed.

Mndebele and Mbuyisa were able to cross the border at 3:30pm this afternoon and are now safe. They have risked their personal safety to report on how the people of eSwatini are risking their lives to fight an oppressive state – and the price that has been paid for that resistance. Mndebele and Mbuyisa acted with courage and integrity and in the best traditions of journalism.

This is not an isolated incident. For decades, eSwatini’s security forces have been notorious for their brutality against journalists, trade unionists, students and other pro-democracy activists. The attempts to silence journalists and activists are aimed, among other things, at trying to prevent the scale of the suffering of the people of eSwatini being conveyed to people outside the country.

New Frame condemns the detention, assault and torture of Mndebele and Mbuyisa in the strongest terms and calls for international solidarity with all journalists and activists facing repression in eSwatini, and for the immediate restoration of democratic freedoms in that country, including the right to a free press.

For more information please contact: Monica Laganparsad, associate editor: (0825786111)