Govt suspends newspaper
. . . probes Lentsoe la Basotho for ‘biased reportage’
COMMUNICATIONS Minister Serialong Qoo has suspended publication of the state-owned weekly newspaper Lentsoe la Basotho citing ongoing investigations into its operations.
The suspension, which is with effect from 28 April 2017, was effected through a memo signed by the Communications Science and Technology ministry’s outgoing Principal Secretary (PS) Tšeliso Khomari.
Mr Khomari, whose last day as the ministry’s PS was Monday this week, confirmed the development in an interview with this paper, saying it was prompted by the “biased reportage” of the newspaper against the seven-party coalition government.
Parties in the governing coalition include the Democratic Congress, Lesotho Congress for Democracy, Lesotho People’s Congress, Popular Front for Democracy, Basotho Congress Party, National Independent Party and the Marematlou Freedom Party.
The coalition formed government on 4 March 2015 after the 28 February 2015 elections, but had its five-year tenure cut short on 1 March 2017 when a four-party opposition alliance successfully sponsored a parliamentary no-confidence vote.
King Letsie III acceded to Prime Minister Mosisili’s advice to dissolve parliament on 6 March 2017 and set 3 June 2017 as the date for the snap elections.
The suspension Lentsoe la Basotho has had a chilling effect on the media fraternity as Lesotho yesterday joined the rest of the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day.
Part of the memo from the ministry reads: “All members of the MCST (Ministry of Communications Science and Technology) staff, with special reference to the Information Department, are herein informed that the Minister of Communications has decided to suspend with immediate effect, the publication of Lentsoe la Basotho the popular weekly government newspaper.
“As soon as detailed investigations into operations of the newspaper have been concluded, the Minister will release an official statement on why the newspaper was suspended in the first place.”
Mr Khomari said Lentsoe la Basotho, which is a public service newspaper, had continued to publish content that was critical of the governing coalition despite being ordered to toe the government line by Mr Qoo.
“The minister decided to suspend publication of Lentsoe la Basotho with immediate effect because it is supposed to support the government without bias,” he said.
“However, there has been a trend in the previous editions of publication of content that was criticising the government’s policies without any research and facts.
“The government has no problem with criticism as long as it is based on research and facts and not bias. Unfortunately, there was a lot of biased reporting in the recent issues of the paper.”
Mr Khomari said Mr Qoo even issued a directive to the ministry’s Director of Communications, Abeloang Ramakhula, and Lentsoe la Basotho editorial staff to submit their stories to the minister before publication.
“But for some reason, the director has not complied with that directive and decided to publish without the editorial input of the minister,” he said.
Commenting on the development, Mr Ramakhula said the role of the newspaper was to inform the public and not be a mouthpiece of the government.
He said, as a public service newspaper, Lentsoe la Basotho was mandated with providing diverse audiences in Lesotho with credible and impartial news.
“I am aware of the memo which has been issued to the ministry’s staff, but I have not received any letter from the minister or the PS,” said Mr Ramakhula.
“The mandate of the paper is to inform the public and not be a mouth piece of the government. It is supposed to impartially sensitise the public on the government’s policies.”
“This drastic measure has emotionally traumatised the newspaper’s staff,” he said.
Mr Ramakhula said the minister once called him complaining about an article in the paper which encouraged supporters of the opposition All Basotho Convention party to vote in their numbers in the 3 June 2017 general assembly elections.
“The article seemed to have offended the minister who accused us of promoting the opposition. But all political parties should be able to reach out to the electorate regardless of being in power or not,” he said.
A Lentsoe la Basotho staffer, who spoke to this paper on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation, said there were numerous complaints from government officials who wanted to be portrayed in a favourable light.
“An example is the outrage that was ignited by the publication of a picture of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili eating a mealie cob he had bought from a vendor in Qacha’s Nek,” said the source.
“It was a real firestorm in which we were accused of publishing a picture showing the premier in an unflattering light.”
The source said it was ironic that they would commemorate World Press Freedom Day having been suspended.
The day is meant to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, 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.
“It is ironic that this suspension has come at a time Lesotho and the rest of the world are commemorating World Press Freedom Day. One would think that by now the government is conversant with the tenets of media freedom.”
For his part, Media Institute of Southern Africa-Lesotho chapter Director Tsebo Matšasa said: “We are yet to establish the real reasons for this suspension. The only thing that we appeal for is for the government to lift the suspension of the newspaper so as to keep the nation informed.”
Efforts to contact Mr Qoo did not bear fruit yesterday as his phone was unreachable.