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THE media fraternity in Lesotho yesterday joined the rest of the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day, held annually on 3 May to highlight the fundamental principles of press freedom.
The day is also celebrated to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
In this interview, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) – Lesotho chapter Chairperson Boitumelo Koloi speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, about the significance and relevance of World Press Freedom Day to the media and general society in Lesotho.
Mr Koloi, who is also a practising journalist, touches on the challenges to the freedom and independence of the country’s media.
LT: What is World Press Freedom Day and how did it come about?
Koloi: World Press Freedom Day is celebrated annually to highlight the importance of freedom of the press and all other forms of expression through the media. This particular day is derived from the 1991 Windhoek Declaration ratified by different countries, including Lesotho, in Namibia. The Windhoek Declaration is a specific document out of which issues related to freedom of the media emanate. The Windhoek Declaration was made following concerns that the media was being oppressed in African countries. But because the declaration has been recognised by the United Nations (UN), the commemorations for this day are held globally. It is an internationally-recognised day.
LT: How significant and relevant is this day to the media in Lesotho?
Koloi: In the case of Lesotho, we as MISA-Lesotho, on behalf of the local media fraternity, have always commemorated this day, throughout the years, in partnership with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The significance and relevance of this day to our situation in Lesotho is that it brings together all of us as relevant stakeholders to introspect. Our media in Lesotho has been in existence for a very long time, but the question is have we developed since then? If I may make an example, we have newspapers like Leselinyana and Moeletsi Oa Basotho which were established by churches from as way back as in the late 1800’s. That goes to show how long the media in Lesotho has been in existence. However, in my humble opinion, our media seems to be still at an infancy stage in terms of the challenges we still face in 2017. We have not at all attained the freedom necessary for our media to operate in a conducive manner. When the media does not operate in an environment that is properly conducive and free, that compromises the end product. A day such as this is quite significant in a lot of ways to the media fraternity; to our course as the media practitioners, other associations and civic organisations that are working specifically with issues related to freedom of expression and of the press.
LT: As Lesotho, how do we celebrate this day? What are the arrangements?
Koloi: Like I mentioned, as MISA-Lesotho we work hand-in-hand with UNESCO. Each year, we pursue a different relevant courses. In recent years, our emphasis has been on the issue of access and receipt of information through media diversification. There was a project that was spearheaded by MISA-Lesotho, the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA) and other funders, where we came up with an initiative of establishing community radio stations, particularly in areas that are deemed not to be receiving adequate information because of the difficult terrains. Although we have as many as about 24 radio stations registered and at least nine newspapers, there is still a problem of information dissemination through the media because the media is just congested in Maseru and the lowland areas. So we thought, over and above the little information that the people in the highlands receive from Maseru, they should also have community radio stations even though they also share information they have with people in the lowlands. The information should be reciprocal. This way, the government and other authorities are able to account to the people and receive feedback from them.
LT: How are the community radio stations you mentioned managed?
Koloi: These radio stations are entirely managed by the communities themselves. The people are in charge of their own communication needs. So far, we have operationalised three radio stations in three different districts, namely Thaba-Tseka, Butha-Buthe and Mafeteng. So basically, ours is just to unveil the community radio stations and then leave them to be managed by the communities themselves.
LT: Did you involve the government in making arrangements for World Press Freedom Day?
Koloi: The government is a major stakeholder in issues of freedom of the press. As MISA-Lesotho, we have a relationship with the government through the Ministry of Communications. Each year, the ministry has a stake in commemorations of this day. The government has to always be kept abreast on media issues because most times when stakeholders complain about lack of freedom of the press, the complaint is directed to the government. In most cases, if not all, the government turns out to be the oppressor of media freedom.
LT: What are challenges faced and concerns raised by the media?
Koloi: Generally, like I mentioned earlier, our media seems to be stuck at the infancy stage. We have spent the last 100 years stagnant. Over the last 12 months, so many shocking incidents happened against the freedom of our media. Journalists are not as free as they are supposed to be. We can cite practical examples where journalists have felt threatened in terms of security. Journalists have fled the country saying they were being chased by elements of security agencies. Last year, the editor of the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express newspapers was shot in a seeming assassination attempt. Prior to his shooting, he was reportedly arrested with Keiso Mohloboli, a journalist from the same publication and they were detained and we understand they were forced to reveal their sources during a joint police and army interrogation. This undermines precincts of media freedom. Even the people who interrogated the journalists knew quite well they cannot request journalists to reveal their sources before them. These kind of issues shows we are regressing instead of progressing on matters of media freedom. Worst of all, even today there is no clarification or update from the police as to whether the suspects in Mr Mutungamiri’s shooting have been arrested or not. Ms Mohloboli, has since fled the country and she is still in exile fearing for dear life.
We also have a series of similar cases with radio presenters who have been intimidated by personnel from security agencies’ and some government authorities. In many occasions, radio presenters have been summoned before the police and interrogated on issues aired in their programmes. In some cases, radio personalities have been literally attacked in their studios where people just stormed into the broadcast studios and harassed the presenters. Recent cases, for instance, involve Harvest FM, Thaha-Khube FM and Tšenolo FM.
LT: What could be the source of the attempts to intimidate media practitioners?
Koloi: One of the glaring challenges is the lack of legal instruments to protect media personnel. We only rely on the general provisions of the constitution which relate to freedom of expression. As such, there are continuous media threats from the armed forces in particular.
LT: We know that the broadcast media is at least being regulated by the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA). What about the print media?
Koloi: For a long time, MISA-Lesotho has been advocating for an independent media regulatory body that is initiated by the media itself. This would enable the media to regulate itself. This is one of the items that appear in the would-be media policy that has been pending government approval for two decades now. The absence of a media policy as an enacted law that guides and regulates media operations is the cause of these incessant attacks on the media. The draft was first inked in 1997. Today it is 2017. Twenty years down the line, the media policy has not been passed by parliaments through the Ministry Communications. How do you expect us to progress! Even if it was to be enacted today, that draft media policy might no longer be relevant.
The other big challenge we have is the political polarisation in our country that has deeply affected our media. We have a media space that is so polarised in line with politics, especially on radio stations obviously because radio stations are popular than any other media. From one radio station to another you can sense their allegiance to certain political parties. Sometimes the problem is caused by the proprietors who are simply there for business and to make a profit. They don’t care about media ethics and professionalism. They can hire and fire regardless of whether you are qualified or not.
The LCA is an arm of the government. We cannot expect it to be neutral when regulating the broadcast media. This is why we have emphasised the establishment of an independent regulatory body initiated by the media fraternity itself.