Blitz on private media a setback for democracy

In last week’s editorial, we discussed the disharmony in the security sector, particularly the army.

We would not have wanted to belabour the point by discussing the same issue, except that the sector continues to be a thorn in the flesh of the country’s fledgling democracy. This time our worries lie in the Lesotho Defence Force’s implicit blackout on the media, particularly the private media.

The normally affable Major Ntlele Ntoi, the voice of the LDF, has seemingly decided to stay mum lately. Being the public relations manager for such an important function of government, this is worrying.

Our paper has over the past two weeks failed to get through to him. His phone keeps ringing until the calls terminate. We believe this is not the way to manage information, particularly in a rumour-prone community such as Lesotho. The best way to quell unpleasant rumour is to manage information by openly addressing concerns any information-seekers have.

As part of the media, we are duty-bound to inform the public about the goings-on in the army and other institutions of public interest.

This can only be done professionally with the support of spokespersons from the institutions in question. In fact, the seeming reluctance to address the media could, unfortunately, be interpreted wrongly to suggest that the issues in question are likely to ruffle some feathers in the army.

We urge LDF’s public relations office to reconsider its latest stance and go back to its traditional position of timely engagement with the media at all times.

Only through sincere engagement can both the media and LDF’s public relations arm be able to give the public its dues –– correct and on-time information about the army. Even more disturbing is that this new attitude by the LDF comes hard on the heels of a similar contempt of the private media by the Speaker of the National Assembly. Sephiri Motanyane recently told the august House that only Lesotho Television and Radio Lesotho journalists would be accorded vantage space within the parliament’s well, while the rest of the media deserve to be condemned in the gallery upstairs with a thick glass screen between the journalists and the MPs. Journalists covering parliament have been issued strict instructions not to use recording devices to capture proceedings in parliament.

Motanyane reckons this is because the rest of the media sensationalise news from the august House at the expense of what he perceives as “the issues” to be disseminated to the public. In the words of parliament’s senior information officer, Neo Mokatsa, Motanyane issued the directive on the basis that “when they report, they only focus on sensational stuff at the expense of fundamental issues”.

As an individual, there is nothing wrong with Motanyane’s views; he is entitled to hold an opinion. However, that he holds such an important office and is still not circumspect about airing such subjective, personal views in the name of such a public office as Parliament, is concerning.

This clearly sends a message to everyone: The private media can as well be gagged because they will not massage the egos of important public figures like him. We wish to state clearly that Motanyane and like-minded officials need to know that private media do not take instructions from public officials.
Instead, the private media, due to their very DNA, have been known for traditionally holding public officials to account without fear or favour.

Since accountability is the spirit of Parliament, one wonders how exactly the role of private media can be seen to be clashing with the interests of Parliament.

We urge Motanyane and others who share his flawed perception of the media to think again. Lesotho subscribes to democracy and any sign of actively closing some democratic spaces for any section of society is at variance with the principles of openness.

Sadly while some among Lesotho’s public officials are busy trying to take media freedom to the Dark Ages, the rest of the world is moving on.

The present era is one in which smart phones and citizen journalism have forcibly carved a niche in democratic space, and for this no one waits for the endorsement of public figures.
The world saw this in action during the Arab Spring a few years ago.

The point is, it is increasingly becoming futile for anybody, of any station in life, to try and stifle information. The smartest thing to do, in this information era, is to learn to manage information.

This includes setting up a strong team of information managers, sometimes known as masters of spin, to cope with information to achieve a specific goal.

After all is said and done, deliberately placing impediments in the flow of information is an indictment on the sort of society leaders want to see.

All the flowery talk at seminars about the media being the fourth estate in a democracy rings hollow in the face of such subtle onslaughts on the gathering and dissemination of information. The South African government has a television channel (on DSTV) solely dedicated to covering events in parliament which is testimony to that government’s demonstrable commitment to openness and accountability.

We urge Lesotho’s authorities, especially those in public office, to walk the talk.

Inevitably, Motanyane’s insistence on openly discriminating against private media begs the question: What does Parliament have to hide, if at all?

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