Lesotho media freedom terror
> Sechaba Mokhethi
Maseru – Media suppression, a clampdown on radio stations and incessant threats to journalists, appear to be the Lesotho government’s route to fighting growing dissent and resistance to its rule ahead of the June 3 elections.
This is despite the declared founding principle of the outgoing seven-party coalition government that committed to developing the country’s media sector by developing a media policy that would enhance media freedom.
Until it was unseated through a motion of no confidence on March 1, government had not moved an inch to make the commitment a reality.
While Lesotho joined the world in commemorating World Press Day last week, the country’s chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Lesotho) had logged several local newspapers facing defamation cases in the courts of law – with complainants demanding huge amounts of money, many over US$300,000.
Despite the status quo, government continues to employ threatening tactics towards the media in its ploy to control information that reaches the public domain.
Ahead of a highly anticipated joint rally on May 6 by leaders of the bloc of a quartet of opposition parties in Mahobong, the home constituency of the Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, government cut a prominent local radio station, People’s Choice FM (PC FM), off air a day before the rally.
The opposition bloc has resolved to pool their votes in ousting Metsing as Member of Parliament for this constituency, voting for the All Basotho Convention (ABC) candidate; and this was the message the parties carried to the rally, which was scheduled to be broadcast live on PC FM.
PC FM is renowned for minute-by-minute current affairs reports on political and social affairs, and is regarded in government quarters as peddling opposition agenda.
All the local commercial radio stations are connected to the state-owned Lesotho National Broadcasting Services’ (LNBS) transmitters, which are directly controlled by government through the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology.
In a letter to PC FM by the LNBS chief engineer, Motlatsi Monyane, government recalled its Studio-Transmitter Link (STL) that had been let out to the station by state-owned Radio Lesotho.
The letter said the government-owned station needed to use the STL in its coverage of the forthcoming elections.
“We do not have funds to procure spare equipment and therefore to avoid any shutdown we will recall the STL which has been used by PC FM,” Monyane noted.
The station was cut off air on Friday but according to inside sources, the LNBS collected their STL on Sunday, two days after they were shut down.
PC FM had already acquired their own STL following receipt of the letter from Monyane, according to management.
The new STL arrived on Saturday and got installed but the radio could not go on air, after consultation with Monyane and PC FM management said they were told that they could only be connected after meeting Communications Minister Serialong Qoo.
The meeting was eventually convened and the ministry was represented by its principal secretary and the LNBS staff. It was following this meeting that the station was reconnected after a four days blackout.
During the clampdown, the station could not air the joint opposition rally with the ABC having also secured airtime in the station’s key programmes that include a Saturday evening 3-hour political programme.
Meanwhile, government has also suspended publication of the state-owned Lesotho Today/Lentsoe La Basotho (The Voice of Basotho) newspaper with Qoo saying he would furnish reasons of the closure after “investigations” were done.
However, it appeared from the ministry’s principal secretary that the paper had published content that portrayed government in bad light.
The paper’s management and the editorial team had been ordered to submit stories to the minister before publication but the order was not honoured, leading to a final shutdown of the paper.
The administration of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili has a history of media clampdown.
On July 5, 2015, Harvest FM reporter Motsamai Talla together with Puseletso Ramokhethi received incessant threats from members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) forcing them to flee Lesotho to the neighbouring South Africa. The two have since returned and resumed their jobs.
On July 15, 2015, government threatened to ban social media citing security concerns. This followed a series of posts on Facebook and WhatsApp attacking politicians in the country.
The government then drafted a Cyber Security Bill which may be tabled in parliament if it wins June 3 polls.
On May 6, 2016 a blogger and the National of Lesotho University lecturer on Political Science and Public Administration Professor Mafa Sejanamane was shot at by unknown assailants but was not injured. To date no one has been arrested.
On July 9, 2016 Lesotho Times newspaper editor, Lloyd Mutangamiri, was shot at the gate of his lower Thamae residence in the capital, Maseru, just before midnight. His attackers are still at large.
On June 23, 2016 Lesotho Times publisher Basildon Peta was charged with defamation and crimen injuria with regard to the contents of the newspaper’s satirical column. The column carried an article about the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander and the Lesotho Cabinet.
On August 25, 2016 Moseketsi Nkuebe, presenter of Thaha-Khube FM radio was threatened by officers of the Lesotho Correctional Service regarding a programme she had aired.
Some of the cases recorded in 2017 include the arbitrary shutdown of PC FM and Tenolo FM in February. Government dilly-dallied on the reopening of the stations even after it was served with a court order to put PC FM back on air.
The stations were only reconnected after a welcome rally of the three leaders of the opposition who were arriving from exile was over.
Currently, three community radio stations, Thabana-Ntlenyana Radio in Mokhotlong, Phesha Kwi Qili in Quthing and Semonkong Community Radio, whose setup has recently been completed, cannot go on air because in September 2016, government indefinitely suspended the issuance of broadcasting licenses.
MISA Lesotho, which pioneered a programme on establishing community radio stations, said: “There is a strong belief amongst analysts that the moratorium is a political ploy to stop the licensing of more radio stations as it is a vibrant media platform which is extremely popular.”