THE owner of the Lesotho Times newspaper, Basildon Peta, has been charged with defamation and crimen injuria over a satirical column in this newspaper said to have severely undermined the commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli.
Mr Peta was summoned by police detectives from his base in South Africa for interrogation over the column published in the 23 June 2016 edition of this newspaper under the moniker Scrutator.
The column headlined ‘Flicker of hope for my beloved Kingdom….’ was written in the wake of an announcement by Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili that the government had decided to “engage General Kamoli on a mutually agreeable solution” in light of international calls that he be relieved of his post.
The weekly column satirized the perceived influence of the LDF commander by telling a joke about a hypothetical “invasion” of a cabinet meeting.
Scrutator is a weekly satirical column in the Lesotho Times meant to provide jocular commentary on serious issues and caricature noteworthy personalities including senior politicians.
It is the practice of newspapers worldwide to include such satirical columns in their sections to try and break the monotony of carrying continuous serious news pages and create a bit of humour or light-hearted reading.
The detectives who interrogated Mr Peta said the column in question had “gone way off the mark” and had severely tarnished the reputation of the LDF commander, the complainant in the case, leaving them with no option but to lodge defamation charges against the publisher of the newspaper.
They also accused the Lesotho Times of being anti-government.
Mr Peta, after hours of interrogation, was then taken to the Magistrate’s Court and charged with defamation and crimen injuria under Section 104 of the Penal Code Act No 6 of 2010 read with Sections 101, 102 (1) and Subsection (2) thereof.
The charge sheet partly reads: “. . . the said accused did by print, writing, or by any means otherwise than solely by gesture, spoken words or other sounds, unlawfully publish any defamatory matter in the Lesotho Times newspaper per article appearing on Page 20 . . .Volume 9 Issue 12, under the heading Scrutator, which publication was targeted and at and or meant for the consumption and or readership of the entire Basotho populace/nation in the country’s 10 districts.
“The said defamatory matter concerning another person, to wit; one Tlali Kennedy Kamoli currently serving in the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) in the capacity of Lieutenant (Lt) General and Commander of the LDF. The said publication and defamatory matter was published with intent to defame that other person, namely, the commander of the LDF, Tlali Kennedy Kamoli. The said accused did thereby commit an offence of defamation by publishing the following defamatory material whose text read thus: …………………..”
The charge sheet then quotes most of the Scrutator column while omitting other paragraphs including the one with an admission that the story was a joke.
Mr Peta said he could not comment on the details of the case brought against him, presumably in his capacity as owner of the newspaper, as the matter was now subjudice and he is due to appear in court again shortly after posting M800 bail and M30 000 surety.
However, Mr Peta said he had taken umbrage with the “unfounded” allegations that the Lesotho Times was anti-government.
“We are a business in this country and it makes no sense for us to seek to destroy a country in which our business operates. Our business can only prosper if the country prospers,” he said.
“While I cannot comment on the merits and demerits of Lt-Gen Kamoli’s defamation case in light of the fact that the matter is now sub judice and the courts would have to pronounce on it, I will take advantage of this unfortunate incident to reiterate the philosophy and editorial policy of our newspaper.
“We are an independent newspaper that firmly believes in the ethos of freedom of speech and expression. We founded the Lesotho Times on the basis of an editorial charter or philosophy anchored in providing a platform for all Basotho to vigorously debate and exchange ideas about how best to foster democratic governance and achieve prosperity for this nation.
“We therefore do not censure ideas or opinions that we don’t agree with but encourage Basotho to express themselves freely as long as that is done in a manner that conforms to all basic and elementary tenets of journalism.”
He added: “We believe in UNESCO’s mantra that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which underpins most other rights and allows them to flourish. The right to speak one mind’s freely on important issues in society, access information and hold the powers that be to account, plays a vital role in the healthy development process of any society.
“In pursuing our mandate, we are the first to admit that we are not perfectionists. When we get things wrong, we are the first to admit our mistakes and take measures to right those wrongs.”
“When all has been said and done, Lesotho, like many other countries that allow free expression, can only advance if we champion our areas of consensus while celebrating our differences.”