Insulting the king on Facebook or Twitter could become a crime in Swaziland, an absolute monarchy in Southern Africa that has faced new criticism online and in the streets.
Under King Mswati III, Swaziland tightly controls the nation's media, clamping down on criticism of the monarch or the government as a whole. With a hamstrung press, online outlets such as Twitter have become a tool for Swazi dissidents to plan protests and share ideas.
Swazi officials have pledged to put an end to that. "Surely there is something that must be done with them. There must be a law that can take them to task," Sen. Thuli Msane was quoted in the Times of Swaziland. The Swazi justice minister reportedly said a new law to punish offenders was in the works.
Freedom House, an international group that advocates for free speech, called it “an alarming move.” Though only 1.2 million people in the country have Internet access, the group said, social media have played an important role in protests, including student demonstrations against cutbacks to higher education last fall.
"The government is desperate right now. They are trying anything to stop people talking to each other," Swaziland Solidarity Network spokesman Pius Vilakati told the Guardian. "I don't think Swazis will take it lying down."
Mswati has faced growing anger over financial woes, especially in light of his own extravagance. Human Rights Watch called it "a serious crisis of governance" that had "left the country on the brink of economic disaster." Poverty, unemployment and HIV infection are rampant in the small country ensconced between South Africa and Mozambique.
In Thailand, a similar law that allows prison sentences of up to 15 years for insulting the king is causing concern. Charges jumped dramatically amid rising political tensions and "Red Shirt" protests.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: King Mswati III reviews his troops in the 2008 movie "Without the King." Credit: First Run Features