Let’s all consolidate press freedom
LESOTHO has a very progressive constitution in regard to freedom of expression which provides under section 14: (a) “Every person shall be entitled, and (except with his own consent) shall not be hindered in his enjoyment of, freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence”.
I purposely decided to interrogate the question of media freedom in Lesotho because you might well be aware that Sunday 3 May 2015, was World Press Freedom Day. It is therefore opportune to take stock of how far our nascent democracy has gone in promoting and nurturing the press, that is, journalists viewed as a collective.
A free and robust press has universally been classified as the fourth estate in any democratic dispensation, vis-à-vis the other organs of government, namely, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
A press that is free and robust s therefore a very important institution in our democracy.
We need a vibrant press that fulfils all its objectives, such as but not limited to, investigative, educational, entertaining, promotes competition and public discourse. A free press is also a very important watchdog on other organs of state.
To demonstrate the vital role that a free press plays in our democratic dispensation, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) established the Lesotho Chapter, whose primary role is to disseminate information to the general public, safeguard and promote a free press that is unhindered in the execution of its mandate.
The government of Lesotho, also in recognition of the critical role the media plays in our nascent democracy, enacted through Parliament, legislation that established the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA).
It is the primary role of the LCA to among others, issue licenses, regulate the media through certain set standards and where necessary, to rein-in the media and exact sanctions where the media oversteps the mark. Indeed, following the establishment of the LCA, the airwaves in Lesotho have been opened-up, so to speak.
However, as will be reflected in this article, Lesotho still has a lot of ground to cover in regard to media freedom. Journalists are also being intimidated and/or barred from covering certain events thereby denying information to our nation.
A disturbing incident was recently reported by one of the radio stations (I am referring to the press as a collective, including journalists) that journalists from two radio stations were barred, in fact escorted out, from covering the Lesotho Defence Force passing-out parade by armed soldiers.
Allegedly, their critics perceived these two radio stations to be reporting or disseminating information that is anti-the new coalition government.
Only journalists from the state media and other private radio sta- tions were allowed to cover this important national event.
To make the event even more important in Lesotho’s military history, it was the first time that Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, as the commander-in-chief of the army, attended the blue-ribbon army ceremony with the new Defence minister among ordinary and equal cabinet ministers.
Sadly, some officials saw it fit to deny this information-starved nation the opportunity to know about the epoch-making event. In no uncertain terms, this unscrupulous act denied this nation their constitutional right of freedom to receive ideas and information without interference.
This nation is, as enshrined in our Constitution and the World Press Freedom Day, entitled the freedom to receive information. No single individual or organization can deny this nation this freedom.
Such behaviour cannot be tolerated in our modern democratic society. Such behaviour has since become an anachronism that belongs to the middle ages. It should not never be done in our name or the name of any organisation.
It is the role also of the LCA and Misa-lesotho, to voice-out their disapproval and be heard in protest against such blatant violation of human-rights.
Just prior to the general elections in February, the LCA, as the country’s supreme media watchdog body, did a commendable thing by training the media on their limits and responsibilities during the turbulent election period, immediately thereafter and indeed throughout its tenure.
Sadly, however, some radio stations went overboard prior to, during and immediately after the elections.
The less said about the LCA and Misa-lesotho during this sensitive period, the better as they could not either, deliberately or inadvertently rein-in some radio stations that allegedly mis-informed the nation, either knowingly or recklessly, about the conduct of a certain minister of the previous coalition government.
These radio stations abused freedom of speech to make unfortunate political mileage by accusing and convicting in the court of public opinion, the former minister, by disseminating the misleading information that he had taken away the certain and other items that were permanent fixtures to a government house he was allocated upon the termination of his tenure of office after the elections.
These unfortunate reports cast such bad aspersions on the integrity of the said minister that his reputation took a nosedive during this unmitigated assault, (for lack of a better term) on his integrity.
I was alarmed and dumbfounded to notice that even after the relevant ministry in which the former minister was the political head, issued a statement rubbishing any allegations of impropriety on his part, neither the LCA nor Misa-lesotho, dared raised a finger to rein-in this blatantly irresponsible reporting.
This was the most opportune moment for the two institutions to stand-up and be counted but lo and behold! they never even raised a finger.
Irresponsible reporting can, for lack of a better term, burn the whole country and erode our moral fabric as a nation and indeed, destroy all that we struggled to achieve for our democracy and fundamental freedoms and human rights as a nation.
The message is simple; stick to ethics As Lesotho joined on Sunday, the rest of the civilised world, in celebrating World Press Freedom Day, we cannot turn a blind eye and universally condemn such sectors of our society that intimidate, bar and muzzle journalists in the discharge of their noble duties of disseminating information.
Instances where journalists have been maimed muzzled and indeed paid the ultimate prize for doing their job in Lesotho are too many to recount here but they are a sad indictment on us as a still developing democracy.
It is a sad reflection on the bona fides of all those who engage in such despicable acts of cowardice against one of our sacred institutions.
It is not the duty of government alone to promote and protect journalists but it is the duty of all stakeholders and those who have a calling to promote, protect and check our democracy. The sooner these unfortunate practices, from whichever quarters are dissuaded and punished, the better for all of us and this information-starved nation.