MBABANE, Swaziland -- Presented with hundreds of exuberant maidens dancing before him during the annual "reed dance" in the royal compound of the Queen Mother last month, King Mswati III, 31, chose as his eighth bride Senteni Masango, an 18-year-old beauty.
What the monarch, who rules over 1 million Swazis in this South African nation, did not know as he participated in one of this country's most colorful rituals was that the bare-breasted teen-ager who caught his eye was an undisciplined high school dropout.
Nor could he have realized that his choice of a fiancee would undermine his country's efforts to shed its image as an outdated absolute monarchy and project itself as an emerging democracy.
As Mswati toured four European countries last month to drum up investment in his pocket-sized kingdom, the newspaper editor who revealed the educational shortcomings of his bride-to-be was arrested by the Royal Swaziland Police and charged with "criminal defamation," which carries the possibility of a fine or imprisonment.
The editor, Bheki Makhubu, 29, was fired Oct. 4 from the Times of Swaziland after refusing to apologize for publishing a story and being accused of "gross insubordination."
The case illustrates the tensions that surface when ancient and modern worlds collide, throwing tradition into conflict with progress and putting this kingdom's tolerance of basic freedoms under international scrutiny.
The harsh reaction to what is regarded as an insult to the royal family comes in the wake of a bloody uprising last year in Lesotho, another tiny kingdom in southern Africa, where the violence was blamed on dwindling respect for the monarchy and the rapid introduction of multiparty democracy.
Alerted by the nearby troubles and in line with a continental emphasis on promoting democracy over dictatorship, Mswati has been cautiously preparing his kingdom for the future.
His aim is to transform a country a little more than half the size of Maryland into a modern society without jeopardizing the aura around his throne, which allows him to hold an almost spiritual sway, as well as a political one, over his subjects.
There is a local saying that Swazis are 90 percent religious and 100 percent traditionalists. It sums up the confused emotions in this land of rugged mountains, verdant hills and blossom-filled valleys landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique.
Elections, limited opposition
In 1993, Mswati, who acceded to the crown when he was 18 in 1986, authorized the first elections since the country's 1968 independence from British protectorate status. A second election was held on schedule last year.
Opposition parties, formally banned under a national emergency declared by Mswati's father in 1973, are not represented in the parliament of elected independents and royal nominees. But they operate openly.
The Cabinet, selected by the king from members of parliament, is dominated by technocrats led by Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini, an economist.
The sale of land held under traditional authority has been accelerated for development. That has created tension between the politicians and the country's 308 chieftains, who previously controlled most of the countryside. But it also has led to wider land ownership and the construction of an impressive industrial park that has attracted international companies, including Coca-Cola.
Mswati appointed a constitutional review commission to decide what sort of system most Swazis want, but he botched the first effort by keeping the hearings closed to the news media, prompting the Clinton administration to withdraw its support for the process.
The United States, prodded by the AFL-CIO, also is pressuring parliament and the palace to adopt a new labor law. It would replace a draconian 1996 law, passed in the wake of industrial unrest, that threatened strike leaders with prison and contravened the standards of the International Labor Organization. At stake for Swaziland is preferential trade access to the U.S. market for its textiles and sugar.
Behind the thrust toward modernization, the royal prerogatives remain largely unchanged.
Mswati controls the political heights of a country where more than 100 princes vie for power and influence. His father is reputed to have had more than 80 wives and 200 children.
He has not reacted publicly to the furor over his fiancee, but in a meeting in the royal residence at Ludzidzini, the governor of the royal household, Dibanisa Mavuso, said Mswati and his fiancee were "annoyed."
After publication of the article, Mavuso summoned media executives to the palace.
"I told them it is not Swazi custom to write about his majesty's affairs," he said, adding that the king took no part in the decision to prosecute Makhubu. "What Swazis say is, they don't want their king embarrassed."
'Gagged press' denied
The decision to prosecute Makhubu was made by Lincoln Ng'arua, director of public prosecutions. Under a law dating to colonial times, he accused the editor of using "immoderate words" calculated to expose the king's fiancee to "contempt and undue ridicule," bring the royal household into disrepute and "offend a substantial and respectable proportion of the Society."
"This does not mean we have gagged the press," Ng'arua said in a statement. "I stand firm for the voiceless young lady, of only 18, who has been depicted in the worst possible light at a time when the whole nation was celebrating her gentle rise in the distant horizons.
"Who can slander the full moon in its wake and not incur wrath of the spirits?"
Makhubu, freed on $500 bail but stripped of his passport, takes pride in his profession.
"In the past, I have not been the kind of journalist who makes a lot of politicians comfortable," he said. "Let's say I spoiled too many Sunday breakfasts. It was their intention to get at me."
Makhubu, who has almost doubled the Sunday edition circulation from 9,000 to 16,000 since he became editor in 1993, printed the story Sept. 12.
The front page carried a photograph of Masango, wearing only a skirt, feathers, necklace and anklets for the "reed dance," held annually to revere the Queen Mother and to allow young girls to try to attract the attention of the king.
The headline read: "Liphovela [fiancee] a high school dropout."
"Isn't she lovely?" said the front-page text. "Rather naughty at school though."
The edition sold out and provoked widespread criticism from readers outraged over the intrusion into royal privacy.
"The clear message was: 'OK, we read it, but why are you telling us this? We don't want to know,' " said Makhubu. "They felt the king has a private life and that this young lady deserved privacy, too.
"My argument was: not necessarily so. She could easily bear the next king. In any case, the natural reaction from any normal person after she was chosen was: Who is she? And who better to answer that question than the media.
"It is unfortunate that what we picked up was not exactly positive. But that question had to be asked."
Graduate and the dropout
Eric Zwane, principal at Ngwane Park High School, confirmed the details in the newspaper story. Masango transferred to Ngwane in February and disappeared in April. She should still be attending class for graduation next year, said Zwane.
After the story appeared, Makhubu was questioned by the police for his sources. He refused to disclose them.
In the next Sunday edition, he printed another picture of Masango, this time sitting at last month's graduation ceremony at the University of Swaziland. Next to her was one of the king's wives, wearing her academic gown. The headline contrasted "the dropout" with "the graduate."
Two days later, Makhubu was arrested while driving into Mbabane, the country's capital, held overnight and charged.
The newspaper, which initially supported him, reversed itself after the media meeting at the palace and demanded that he apologize for causing embarrassment, he said. He refused. It offered him a severance package, which he also declined. Then he was fired. Attempts to obtain comment from the newspaper failed.
Of the country's four major media outlets, the Times of Swaziland is the only independent newspaper. The competing Observer is owned by a royal trust, and both television and radio are controlled by the government.
World's journalists take note
The arrest of the journalist attracted the attention of local and international media organizations.
Swaziland's National Association of Journalists demanded that the criminal charge against Makhubu be dropped and that he be reinstated by the newspaper.
The Paris-based media group Reporters Sans Frontiers warned that the incident could provoke "more repressive" laws and said, "We fear that, angered by this article which involved him directly, the king may decide to impose a very strict system against journalists."
In neighboring South Africa, the Star newspaper said, "The young king tampers with what is left of press freedom in the kingdom at his peril -- and at great risk to his country's economic, social and political future."
The Clinton administration, committed to increasing democracy, including freedom of the press, throughout Africa, has kept publicly silent on the issue for fear of jeopardizing modernization moves in Swaziland. But it has privately informed the government of its concern.
Makhubu was more outspoken.
"One of the things that Swaziland faces as a nation is the position of the press in our conservative, traditional society," he said. "The press really has a place beyond working as a public relations system for the government."