Major step forward for media

LAST week the government unveiled a new media policy to regulate the broadcasting, print and publishing sectors.

The draft media policy represents a major step forward for the media which had up until now operated without any written guiding principles.

The media have been fumbling in the dark for too long.

The new policy will seek to correct this situation by establishing a legal and regulatory regime to guide the media.

It’s encouraging that the government has expressed a willingness to establish a policy that promotes the development of a vibrant and diverse media sector.

The government says the new media policy should comply with Lesotho’s international commitments. It should also be consistent with international best practices.

The government says it wants to protect the rights of all citizens to seek, receive and impart information or ideas.

To achieve these lofty goals the government wants to amend the constitution to expressly recognise freedom of the media.

The new policy will be based on co-regulation for the broadcasting sector and self-regulation for the print sector.

These are lofty ideals.

If the government adheres to the letter and spirit of the draft document we could witness the beginning of a healthy and progressive relationship between the media and the government.

We are aware that the relationship between the government and the media has always been an antagonistic one.

It is true that the government and the media do not have to agree on every issue.

But at least the two need to set and agree on the rules of the game.

The Lesotho media policy, which could be approved by Cabinet next month, offers the government and the media an opportunity to start on a fresh page.

Cynics among us will of course doubt the government’s sincerity in the whole thing.

They argue that this government is up to no good.

They argue that this is the same government that shut down a radio station last year and hounded journalists in the country’s courts of law.

They will argue that a leopard does not just wake up and decide to change its spots.

We will in the meantime give the government the benefit of the doubt.

The media plays a critical role as a watchdog of society.

As the Fourth Estate the media can help entrench democracy and promote good governance.

This is the reason why most countries have constitutional provisions that seek to jealously safeguard the rights of the media to operate without unnecessary impediments.

Under the terms of the new policy the government has also undertaken to repeal obnoxious pieces of legislation that are still on our statute books.

The media have argued that some of these laws, dating back to colonial times, generally impose unreasonable restrictions on the work of journalists.

We have in mind here notorious laws such as the Obscene Publications Proclamation (1912), the Sedition Proclamation (1938), the Official Secrets Act of 1967 and the Internal Security (General) Act of 1984.

Most of these laws are too broad as to criminalise the practice of journalism.

We agree that these laws must be drastically amended in line with modern trends.

These laws, in their present form, have no room in a democratic society.

Of course, we are aware that it is not possible for the media to get a blank cheque.

There will be reasonable restrictions.

These restrictions will seek to protect national security, public safety, public morality or public health among other interests.

Coming up with a media policy was the easiest part.

The real test will be in the day-to-day implementation of the policy. We will anxiously wait to see how the government implements the new policy.

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