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MBABANE – A free press is one of the conditions of a ‘free and fair elections’.

Journalists have a duty to ensure that the election process is free and fair. They are sometimes referred to as members of the fourth estate as they have a duty to hold people in authority accountable for their actions.
On August 26, which was the day for the primary elections, thousands of emaSwati left the comfort of their homes to participate in the general elections.

They were counting on journalists to give them updated information on the proceedings countrywide for both print and social media. If journalists had not reported on the events at the primary elections, the public would have to depend only on official results. The public would also be deprived of knowing the details of the voting process.
World over, it is the duty of journalists to inform the public about the proceedings during elections. Their role is so important that according to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocols, censoring journalists who are covering the elections could result in the process being viewed as not free and fair. A free and fair election process is a cornerstone of democracy.

However, during recent primary elections, many journalists complained of being barred from covering the elections despite having received full accreditation to do so. This was because officials at some polling stations had requested that journalists should sign secrecy forms before they could be allowed to carry out their duties. ournalists need accreditation to cover general elections because it is a way to ensure that they have direct access to information at the polling station. This enables all journalists to freely work and cover the whole electoral process wherever.
Though accreditation is meant to ensure that journalists have direct access to information at the polling station, generally, all journalists are allowed to cover the electoral process.


However, despite this, journalists who were on duty covering the primary elections are said to have been forced to sign secrecy forms. Officials at the various polling stations demanded that the journalists sign the secrecy forms before they could be allowed to go about their duties. It was the first time journalists reported of being forced to sign secrecy forms. In the previous general elections in 2018, no journalists had reported that they were asked to sign secrecy forms by officials stationed at the polling stations.

Some of the polling stations where journalists signed secrecy forms include Mangweni High School under Mhlangatane and also Ludzibini High School under Timphisini. At Mangweni, an official there said journalists were free to report but they could only do so after completing the secrecy form and getting it signed by a commissioner of oaths, such as an authorised police officer.

Journalists who were covering the elections from this publication then had to complete the forms and had them signed by a police officer who held the rank of sergeant. At Ludzibini polling station, a police inspector signed as the commissioner of oaths after and EBC official insisted there that journalists should not be allowed to cover the elections without completing the secrecy forms. In fact, at one of the polling stations, a journalist reported how she was asked to speak out the oath before completing the secrecy form.

Journalists complained that it appeared officials were not consistent in insisting that journalists sign the secrecy form and if this was legal. The journalists said it was strange that while certain polling stations wanted journalists to sign the secrecy forms, some journalists were allowed coverage without being asked to complete the secrecy forms.
Mbonisi Bhembe, the Communications Officer of the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) said it was the Elections Act that prevented people from taking photos. He was asked if in this case it also applied to journalists. His response was that if the law states that ‘no person shall take pictures’, it includes every person. “You should read the law,” he advised.


Bhembe responded after he was asked about the secrecy form. He said this was the essence of the secrecy form that one was not allowed to reveal any information until a court allows you to do so. “Those given to sign secrecy forms could even be called upon to answer in court.” said Bhembe. He said at polling stations, journalists are only given a few moments at the polling station. He said, however, that should a journalist want to get into a poling station and sit, that person should sign the secrecy form.

Noteworthy, during the counting process, journalists normally sit in the polling stations. This, they do so that they are able to report efficiently on the counting. Other journalists also complained of being prevented from working efficiently by police officers. In one of the polling stations, a police officer had locked the gate on a journalist but later opened it after an EBC official intervened.