SINCE his appointment as government spokesperson last year, Nthakeng Selinyane has had to wither numerous storms particularly in the form of attacks from different sections of the political divide. Some have also called his office redundant arguing that it is duplication of duties with those of the Government Secretary or that of the Prime Minister’s Press Attaché.
Lesotho Times (LT) senior reporter ‘Marafaele Mohloboli sat down with Mr Selinyane (NS) this week to discuss the functions of his office and other related issues. Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: What is the function of the government spokesperson’s office in relation to the public? How does it relate to Prime Minister’s Spokesperson or Press Attaché?
NS: The titles speak for themselves. One is a liaison between the media and Prime Minister while the other represents the government to the nation and the world. One services one office while the other has a universal or global scope. With the office of the government’s spokesperson, accountability is emphasised as the central precept of democracy which I think should be comprehended as going for the relations between the government and the public across the spectrum.
We must recognise the inalienable and undisputable right of the public to know how the state affairs are being conducted at every turning point, and understand that the office of the spokesperson can only do representation, say what the owners of the office, being the cabinet and the PM wish to project as a position of the government on any issue. That is an office which by definition does not have any right of opinion or expression of opinion on matters of public affairs. It is called upon to advice the bearers of the mantle of the state and that advice might not be divulged, because it is given in confidence; and whether it is used or not used cannot be said publicly by the holder of the office.
This is an expressly political office. It is a political entity in the sense that everything that it does can always be given the interpretation of political mileage or angling; and as such is always open to both attack and appreciation from a variety of actors of a political complexion across a spectrum of inclinations. It is clear that one is called upon to do some little spin doctoring, and of course spin doctoring and concealment do not go together with public accountability; so, I have always been clear that I would stay clear of any spin doctoring.
After a year and half in office, anybody is free to do some stock taking and I’m also obliged to do so, as to how much of that public accountability versus spin doctoring, which is like walking on a razor edge, I have observed thus far.
LT: What exactly is the net value of having this office as a public servant instead of a cabinet minister?
NS: As opposed to the past when the Information minister has been serving as the government spokesperson, perhaps by default, last year cabinet decided to create this office as independent. This presents both challenges and opportunities from the point of view of the consumer, as well as the public as the owners of the work, and the government as the shepherd of that work. Some of these advantages are that the government spokesperson will be readily available to receive and questions to the media and other interested parties while the minister might be ceased with various commitments from time to time that make him or her inaccessible. The government spokesperson might be relatively free from prejudices and personal attachments and attacks as a person, as opposed to a minister who is seen as a doer of an act that the government which he represents might be accused of.
The spokesperson is open to being directed by any member of the cabinet on the necessity to make certain interventions, clarifications and representations on behalf of either the cabinet, a section of the cabinet or individual ministers. If one minister does that to another serving as spokesperson, this might have connotations where one who is approached might feel as if he or she is being made an errand runner by somebody who is their equal. The potential requester might even feel they are being shepherded by a peer in the information ministry.
Other have of course, had reservations coming out of perceptions of disempowerment or encroachment by sections of the cabinet who felt that the office in this form, takes away certain privileges, the prestige, the resources of self-gratification and an advancement of own political agenda by the person holding that position as a politician in the cabinet. Some have suggested that it is awkward to have as a cabinet spokesperson someone who does not sit in cabinet and must information only from those who sit on cabinet; whereas that information might not always be forthcoming – not to mention that there might be distortions or some miscomprehension or something that one might say “lost in transmission” of the information from the source that sits on the cabinet to the person who ought to convey it to the public and others who might inquire about the availability of such.
These are some of the considerations that I have had to live with and might not wish to say whether they prevail or they actually subsist as projected.
LT: There have been concerns that too many persons speak for this office today as opposed to before you came along, how do you explain that?
NS: My letter of appointment says that I am the government spokesperson; and my job description says to coordinate all government communication to the public. This to me says I set the tone for everyone who speaks for any unit of government and “ensure timely, consistent, coherent, and coordinated communication to the public on all matters relating to the government’s agenda”. I am also given to research all factors that affect the image of the government, devise strategies for improving that image, arrange information and promotional campaigns and handle crisis and emergency communications.
It is clear that this is a wide casting of the net but I’m aware that since we have a cadre of information and public relations officers across the web of government ministries and departments, starting with cabinet itself; and we have a few chat groups especially on WhatsApp which are administered by myself and other colleagues on general communications, reforms logistics, reforms communications and strategy, government reforms “manifesto” or position paper which brings persons of the caliber of ministers who populate the co-ruling parties executive committees – all these exist to discharge specified functions which cannot all fall on the shoulders of the spokesperson as the chief government communicator.
I respect their regular performance of their functions and only intervene on high-end political implications of their functions. I have said this before, when answering some on-air charges of sleeping on duty by some ruling parties’ spokespersons in cahoots with some ministers, some of my colleagues in office, as well as some self-ingratiating and affection-ticket of propagating the untruth that I have been sleeping on duty, by their own confession.
I might speak on the signature of the inter-state compacts like the Lesotho Highlands Water Project or the Millennium Challenge Account, and on their implications for turning the fortunes of the citizens and state protection of the rights and equity of access to opportunities. However, this is not to usurp the public relations officer’s (PRO) job of speaking on routine matters like opening of clinics and distribution of compensation for resettled communities.
On the converse, I’m of course alert to the furor that is sometimes aroused by some persons speaking for the government while I’m still in the post and on the ground. I’m not going to sit as judge on the phenomenon, save to speak to its evolution.
When I established office, one of my first outings was an assignment to co-draft a statement with the Prime Minister’s Press Attaché. Whether it was meant to be a long-haul affair and sustainable and how I felt about it is neither here nor there. What matters for now is that as my colleague intermittently appeared speaking for the government, which was never the case when the minister was in office before I established it as independent. That attracted a rising tide of social media and radio talk show objections, which prompted our boss, the government secretary to call the media on a surprise briefing to set the record straight, if I may invoke a cliché.
There he said he was the one responsible for releasing government information to the public and the world, and he could use anyone including Mr Selinyane, Mr Thakalekoala, Motšoari, or Ntsokotsane who were all in his office; and nobody had any right to question his prerogative of who he sent to speak for the government on his behalf because that was his own function.
The media of course, neither reported that nor stopped in their insistence on the separation of the two functions in action. While I cannot say there was a fallout from the turn of events but certainly having multiple personalities speaking for the state has had deleterious effects. There was a time, for example when my office put out an elaborate statement explaining the country’s journey to securing the Second Compact of the MCC, after a thorough debriefing of the LMDA management, following which the PM went on air briefing Parliament that we scored 80 percent on assessment and were on course to being re-selected – only for someone from part of our Cabinet Office communications to come through and say we had already secured the Compact. That was last November and another November later, we’re still confidently awaiting selections, not because we’re deviant or disliked but because that is how that course runs, and the Americans must have been shocked at pretension of the Lesotho state communications that we had been selected.
Only recently, we sustained another round of miscommunications when I was insisting on radio stations that in the ethos of public accountability, the LDF Public Affairs Office had no grounding in saying the army would not explain itself to the nation about withdrawing wholly the bodyguards of ministers to attend a general parade to be told about their disgruntled leadership’s position on security agencies’ salaries harmonisation – only for the selfsame communicator to come through defending the army for making arrangement of “skeleton staff guards” at ministers’ homes, contrary to the army itself braving that they left their sentries empty.
Sometimes I have ministers simply telling me that I should follow them on radio like everybody else if I want to know what they have been doing in their critical errands about which the nation awaits reports. Let me not be misunderstood here. I speak for the government, if the government temporarily recalls its mandate delegated to me by appointment and job description, either as “full bench” of cabinet or its specialised committees like that on factory salaries, wool and mohair marketing, basic education strike, etc then I have no reason to complain. But when that results in running helter-skelter in tone or content, and eventuates in me being accused of being a truant, as though I now have to compete for the shine of ministers, as my masters, it becomes a different kettle of fish altogether…
LT: Some politicians including some ministers have accused you of being inefficient, sleeping on the job and leaking state secrets, what is your take on this?
NS: Which government secrets when I have been taken out of all official government chat groups, except those created and administered by myself, for about a year now and don’t get told such unless where I get information in droplets. If this was true, I could have been fired.
In my contract, that is an offence that warrants expulsion. It is also a state crime which still remains on our statute books. As for sleeping on the job, everybody hears me on the whole array of radio stations without fault whenever they have questions, and on quizzical talk shows like the ones I hosted on the way we speak national unity and reconciliation…
When the other day I stood up and dragged Motumi Ralejoe of TšenoloFm to the Broadcasting Dispute Resolution Panel (BDRP) and ultimately settled down to his on-air apology and withdrawal for maligning the PM by playing a 2014 Pitso speech clip as though it was a 2019 speech…
I could do that because the PM is head of the government and my coverage is universal, except that I won’t do that when another communicator is already doing so on his or her turf – but no other single communicator in any other cabinet or ministerial office enjoys the same outreach.
In January 2019 the cabinet committee on reforms headed by Hon Lesego Makgothi charged me with establishing a government Reforms Communications team, and I assembled it with persons from cabinet, Public Service and the Communications ministry. It joined together with NDPC communicators Messrs Morrison and Boitumelo Koloi to make a National Reforms Communications team which was instrumental in accelerating awareness, education, and resolving intermittent standoffs among government, NDPC and role players on the Lesotho National Dialogue Project (LNDP).
The government’s Reforms Communications team in February put together a consensus position paper of the government on all seven themes of reforms following the retreats of NECs and Joint Caucus of parties, and later developed Cabinet Paper for Hon Minister of Communications to put through Cabinet, but to date the government hasn’t adopted Reforms position, as Hon Thesele ‘Maseribane told the NLF last Thursday.
Is that still the servant sleeping on duty? Sometimes one has to handle crisis and emergency communication like the recent Morocco-Saharawi diplomatic shamble, and you find that your resourcefulness relies on cooperation of people who have messed up and yet are expected to be the ones who wipe up. Is that still the servant sleeping on the job?
LT: What in your opinion is the ideal tone and slant that the office should adopt in order to be of maximum effect?
NS: Every government communicator’s tone should be that of showing respect and civility to all segments of community; never to hurl curses and invectives at them, however unpleasing some of their known inclinations and often-repeated statements. The first key word in government communications is accountability; the second is accountability; and the third is accountability.
LT: Access and receipt of information are critical to an effective communications office, especially in a democracy as you keep repeating. What factors usually come between you and rapid flow of critical official information?
NS: Ideally someone in this post should be aware of cabinet agenda and what individual ministries and agencies are doing at any point in time. That way, one can toss the questions that are on the public minds and media for their advance addressing, instead of being reactive. There have been calls for routine, preferably weekly, publication of cabinet decisions and update on their execution. We did that only once since I came into office, and clearly there is an accountability deficit, which I think should be a cardinal concern of my office, and its resolution is central to the ethos of our governance. This is still palpably present and crying for address.