Let’s all con­sol­i­date press free­dom

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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.

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