This article was originally published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa and in December 2014

As you tuck into Christmas lunch this year, spare a thought for the many journalists languishing behind bars around the globe.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there are 220 journalists in prisons around the world in December 2014. This is the second highest number since CPJ began their annual census in 1990. Reporters Without Borders also recorded a worrying picture of global media freedom in recent times.

In 2014, Swaziland — a small absolute monarchy wedged between democratic South Africa and booming Mozambique — joined the unflattering list of Journalist Jailers by throwing an editor and a columnist behind bars.

Award-winning editor Bheki Makhubu and prominent columnist Thulani Maseko are both serving a two-year jail term after writing “contemptuous” articles criticising the kingdom’s controversial chief justice Michael Ramodibedi. Makhubu, editor of The Nation magazine, and Maseko, a human rights lawyer who writes for The Nation, were said to have brought the justice system into disrepute. In reality, they wrote passionate opinion pieces outlining the judiciary’s abuse of power while calling for a more open and tolerant nation that respects its own constitution.

bheki and thulani
The Nation editor Bheku Makhubu (in blue sweater) and Nation columnist Thulani Maseko (in suit) arrive at Swaziland’s high court. Photo: Bill Snaddon

Chief Justice Ramodibedi, who instigated the arrests of the two writers in March 2014, is himself no stranger to being on the wrong side of the law. He recently resigned from a judicial position in his home country Lesotho in the face of an impending impeachment process. Ramodibedi’s reputation outside of Swaziland, leaving much to be desired, offers another point of comparison with the official version inside the country. In Swaziland, where his star is on the rise, Ramodibedi’s court continues to intimidate and shackle the media with impunity.

So, as you and your family come together in the warmth of the festive season, spare a thought for the families of jailed journalists who, in these dark times, try against hope to find cause for celebration and strength. MISA-Swaziland spoke with the wives of Makhubu and Maseko and asked what their Christmas message is for their jailed husbands.

“My Love, they put you in prison because they are afraid of you and because they are afraid of the truth,” said Tenele Maseko, wife of Thulani. She continues: “As your mentor Martin Luther King Jnr says, ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenges and controversy.’ He also says: “Freedom has always been an expensive thing. History is a fit testimony to the fact that freedom that freedom is rarely gained without sacrifice and self-denial. Soldier on Khubonye waNdolvu, prisoner 579/2014. I love you more, now, than ever before.”

Fikile Makhubu, wife of Bheki, had this message for her husband: “Everything works together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). God is a good and loving God. Even this Christmas I want to say to my husband that God is still God and He loves us. God is still at work, my love. It may be dark right now but soon it will be morning. I love you my husband.”

After several unsuccessful bail applications and a frustrated appeal process, Makhubu and Maseko are due for release in July next year. There is an appeal hearing slated for May 2015. Many observers are doubtful that this appeal will change anything.

When asked about spending the Christmas period in jail, Makhubu said: “Of course it’s lousy, but it was to be expected.”

Legal analysts say Makhubu and Maseko have a good case, but question the objectiveness of judges who are effectively complainants and judges in the same case. Despite the predictability, Makhubu and Maseko are appealing in May next year to continue creating a legal record of the saga, so history can judge for itself whether true justice was done.

During the drawn out legal proceedings earlier this year, Nelson Mandela’s spirit was never far away from the courtroom. Maseko, the human rights lawyer who holds Mandela dear to his heart, drew comparisons between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Swaziland when reading a powerful statement from the dock. Maseko’s colleague and fellow human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze was also asked what his message is for the jailed duo this Christmas.

“Jail was unable to break the spirit of Nelson Mandela,” he replied.

MISA-Swaziland advocacy officer Phakama Shili, who has been following the legal manoeuvrings, had this message of support.

“Swaziland is in a critical moment. Freedom of expression is under attack. There is never a time when you need people like Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko in jail. Institutions that should be upholding justice are doing the opposite. As we go towards the festive season, let us remember the suffering of our fellow journalists and we remember Bheki and Thulani who are languishing in jail; and support their families the best way we can.”

“We are with them as they languish in jail,” added MISA-Swaziland director Vuyisile Hlatshwayo.

“What they believe in is not in vain.”