New Frame journalists back in SA after allegedly being detained, assaulted, tortured in eSwatini

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Firefighters extinguish a fire at a supermarket during eSwatini protests.
Firefighters extinguish a fire at a supermarket during eSwatini protests.
  • Two South African journalists on assignment for New Frame, were allegedly detained, assaulted and tortured by security forces in eSwatini. 
  • The journalists, who were covering the protests and reported murder of citizens in the country, have since been released and are back in South Africa. 
  • While being detained, they were allegedly suffocated with plastic bags, according to New Frame. 

Two New Frame journalists from South Africa, who were covering protests in eSwatini and reported murders of citizens, were allegedly detained, assaulted and tortured by security forces.

This according to a statement released by the media company, which said Magnificent Mndebele and Cebelihle Mbuyisa were captured by security forces while on assignment on Sunday.

New Frame associate editor Monica Laganparsad said shortly after 09:00 on Sunday, the two journalists 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.

READ | EFF denies smuggling guns to Eswatini

"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," Laganparsad added.

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," she said.

When New Frame received news of their arrest, Johannesburg-based lawyers Cheadle Thompson & Haysom Inc 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 journalists were released at around 15:00.

Laganparsad added Mndebele and Mbuyisa were taken to hospital following their arrest.

They were told it would be too dangerous to head for the border that night as the police, soldiers and correctional officers were positioned at multiple roadblocks along the main highways.

Before they were detained, Mndebele and Mbuyisa were allegedly stopped at roadblocks on a number of occasions, threatened and forced to delete material from their phones and camera.

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

Back in South Africa 

After spending the Sunday evening in Mbabane, where they were given refuge and cared for by an ordinary citizen who works as a cleaner, Mndebele and Mbuyisa safely crossed the border back into South Africa at around 15:30 on Monday.

Laganparsad said both men had risked their personal safety to report on how the people of eSwatini were risking their lives to fight an oppressive state - and the price that had been paid for that resistance. 

ALSO READ | Civil groups 'gatecrash' SADC meeting in eSwatini, accuse government of staging talks

"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."

Situation in eSwatini

eSwatini has been gripped by deadly protest since last Tuesday, but an internet blackout has effectively cut the country off from international media outlets.

The government blamed looting and vandalism for the blackout, but MTN eSwatini confirmed it received a directive from the country's communications authority to block the internet.

Observers in the country said citizens were now reliant on the state-run broadcaster and pro-government newspapers.

In the meantime, unverified images and videos of brutalised protesters have been distributed via social media channels when the sporadic internet connection returned.

READ | Death toll in eSwatini protests rises, but govt, activists dispute exact figures

Activists said the army and police were patrolling the streets, harassing young people in particular to quell protests.

While the government said it was still investigating the death toll, activists added it could be as much as 70 people killed during ongoing demonstrations.

The protests erupted last Tuesday, with demonstrators targeting and burning businesses linked to King Mswati III and the royal family. Protesters are calling for multiparty democracy, job opportunities and police reform.

The country has for years cracked down on journalists who are critical of the king, forcing some into exile into South Africa. It has also banned several opposition parties, many of whom now operate out of South Africa.

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