‘Threats on the media never justified’

Lesotho Times
12 Min Read
MISA Lesotho director Tsebo Matšasa


MISA Lesotho director Tsebo Matšasa
MISA Lesotho director Tsebo Matšasa

THE safety of journalists has come into the spotlight following the shooting of Lesotho Times and Sunday Express Editor Lloyd Mutungamiri. Mr Mutungamiri was shot four times and seriously injured in an ambush at his Thamae home in the wee hours of 10 July 2016.

Shortly afterwards, Lesotho Times and Sunday Express reporter Keiso Mohloboli quit her job and fled the country “to a place of safety” fearing for her life.

In this wide ranging interview, Media Institute of Southern Africa-Lesotho (MISA- Lesotho) Director Tsebo Matšasa speaks with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane on the state of the media in Lesotho and related issues.

LT: What’s your view on the ongoing threats to journalists’ safety?

Matšasa: We condemn any threat to the media, even without getting into the merits of such threats. We condemn threats because our position is if there are complaints against the media, there are proper legal routes to follow; not threats or intimidation. Before a media house can be dragged to court over any alleged infraction, the complainant should first seek a retraction or apology for what has been wrongfully published. The complainant should only approach the courts if this process fails. Threats made by words or actions are not allowed at all. The media’s role is to be a watchdog of society, which is very important. When mistakes are made in the execution of the role, legal routes should be followed to correct the alleged mistake. That’s our standpoint. The media needs to be free, and to be supported in doing its work. That is the responsibility of every consumer of media products.

LT: Do you think the intimidation is a result of the failure by media practitioners to conform to journalistic ethics? 

Matšasa: During the 2016 MISA-Lesotho annual general meeting held earlier this year, our chairperson Mr Malakeng Hloma said, much as MISA-Lesotho supports the development of journalism in the country, the conduct of some media practitioners left a lot to be desired. Some media practitioners don’t abide by journalism ethics and don’t apply themselves in their work. As a result, some silly mistakes are made. However, in some cases, the mistakes are a result of shortages of staff and lack of resources which make it difficult for the media to operate effectively.

Media practitioners need to abide by laid down ethics because the smallest mistake can cause irreparable harm. I have always argued it is very easy to tell if a story has been written in a hurried way or without due care and effort.

Almost every day, we listen to radio programmes that are not balanced. For instance, listeners in some phone-in programmes make unsubstantiated allegations and the presenters don’t bother to verify those claims.

During an editors’ forum organised by MISA-Lesotho last December, editors from the print and broadcast media made their presentations. One of the editors said, he was always surprised to see one or two reporters in the newsroom continually writing in glowing terms about a certain political party even though the organisation is not supposed to be partisan. The editors said, in some cases, they were not aware their reporters were affiliated with certain political parties. The editors were then advised to always liaise with their reporters to avoid surprises and ensure balanced reportage.

It has become the norm that certain by-lines are associated with particular political parties. For some radio programmes, the callers are always the same people with the same political inclination. Listeners can also be rest assured the programme won’t end without certain politicians calling-in. What we call for is for the media to provide a platform for many voices and a wide spectrum of views.

LT: What is the way forward to address this challenge?

Matšasa: The media in Lesotho needs support through training and mentorship. When mistakes are made, the media should not be crucified. There shouldn’t be any threats or intimidation on the media. As I said, there are legal procedures in dealing with the media. Media practitioners are not criminals, hence they shouldn’t be treated as such. A journalist who has misrepresented facts should not be treated like a criminal who broke into somebody’s house.

LT: The world over, many people are increasingly relying on social media for information. How has social media influenced the dissemination of information in Lesotho?

Matšasa: I find news disseminated through social media destructive in many ways. Firstly, a number of people use fake identities on social media. They post gossip, lies, vulgar language and all sorts of negative things which, otherwise, would not be disseminated via conventional media. Information emanating from social media networks is somewhat dangerous because it does not go through proper editorial channels. However, social media also enables journalists to get tipoffs which they can then verify. From October last year until March this year, I have closely monitored activities by Basotho on Facebook. I have since written an article entitled “The role of Facebook in the media profession in Lesotho”. In the article, I noted there were various active political groups on Facebook for the Congress people (supporting the government) and the Nationalists (opposition).

For the media practitioner, the challenge is always to strike a balance between tipoffs from these groups and verification. As a result, the conventional media will always be more credible than social media. That’s why a lot of people wait to see social media reports being published in mainstream media to be sure of their authenticity. In most cases, the information coming from social media networks would be true. However, some facts would be inaccurate.

Fortunately, many Basotho would rather wait for the “correct” information from mainstream media than rely on social media. This is unlike other countries, especially in the developed world, where people rely on social media because of its speed.

My advice to people using social media groups is to use the forums to hold constructive debates using their real identities. In Lesotho, a lot of people don’t use their real names because they don’t want to be associated with certain political parties. It is high time we start using social media for progressive and developmental purposes. If used well, social media can contribute to Lesotho’s economic and social development.

LT: Is the media rightly using or abusing freedom of expression?

Matšasa: There is freedom of speech in Lesotho. Basotho are free to air their views, and the media has played a very crucial role in that regard. There are broadcast programmes and newspaper columns in which Basotho express their views freely. However, there are challenges that I have alluded to earlier. People express themselves without verifying their claims. As a result, I would say freedom of speech is being abused in the media to a certain extent. Basotho should not forget to use their right to freedom of speech with responsibility.

LT: MISA-Lesotho has been criticised for allegedly failing to take action in response to the intimidation and prosecution of journalists. What exactly is your role on issues like that?

Matšasa: The challenge we have encountered is many people don’t quite understand our role and responsibility. People always confuse MISA-Lesotho with trade unions. We don’t just criticise people or the government without fully understanding the gist of the matter. Most of the criticism we faced was centred on the question of whether MISA-Lesotho represented journalists. In actual fact, MISA-Lesotho is a media organisation and not a journalist organisation. We carry out policy advocacy and capacity-building programmes in the media. We also speak on behalf of the media where necessary. Where journalists or media practitioners are arrested, harassed and intimidated, our role is to issue an action alert to the rest of the world saying ‘this is the situation in Lesotho’. We then pronounce ourselves on the issue. However, in condemning the arrest, harassment and intimidation, we won’t necessarily be condoning what the journalist would have disseminated.

All we want to see is for the law to take its course in a fair and transparent manner. We don’t want a journalist to say ‘I was ambushed; I was not given a chance for a hearing or I didn’t have a lawyer’. We want journalists to take responsibility for their job. Journalists should be charged by the courts of law where necessary. They should be taken through disciplinary processes where necessary. In some instances, MISA-Lesotho provides financial support to journalists during their trials. Some people want to compare the current MISA-Lesotho with the previous one which took to the streets and attacked the authorities. That is not our mandate. Most of the criticisms are made out of ignorance and desperation in the case of someone who needs us to intervene on their behalf. If MISA-Lesotho falls into this trap, it will be abused. We will always maintain diplomacy and professionalism in addressing any issues with the government. We don’t want to give the government an excuse to be hostile and refuse to sit down with us to address media issues together.

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