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The enemies of media freedom



OVER the last two weeks, we have seen an increase in signs of repression and violations of media freedom. Journalists have been under attack since November 9, 2021, with the police leadership clearly attempting to suppress their attempts to report on the conflict between the police authority and the Lesotho Police Staff Association (LEPOSA). Whenever truth becomes a casualty, journalists suffer. They are mediums of communication, whether it’s newspapers, websites or social media. In this country, once, the medium of communication becomes a target, then the messengers become targets and you have got a problem. Human rights activist and journalist Edgar Mahlomola Motuba and his two friends Koeshe and Mohale became targets. They were abducted and murdered. Their bodies were dumped at Siloe, Mohale’s Hoek. The Mirror newspaper Publisher/Editor Mike Moananong Pitso became a target, he was poisoned and died in 1992. In the space of two weeks members of the media have faced brutal crackdowns. On the night of November 9, 2021, I was listening to MoAfrica FM when it was reported that some gunmen were attacking a local female journalist, ‘Marafaele Mohloboli, at her home. Mohloboli became a target and unfortunately her husband was badly injured. As if that was not enough, on the 14 November 2021, a 357 FM radio presenter, Lebese Molati, became a target. He was detained and subjected to inhumane treatment by the police. He was assaulted and suffocated with a rubber tube while forced to reveal his sources. The following day, on November 15, 2021, the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express courts reporter Mohalenyane Phakela was prevented from entering and providing coverage at the courts of law by lead judicial officer and custodian of justice administration Chief Justice (CJ) Sakoane Sakoane for a satirical piece run by his paper seen as critical to the CJ and his work. A few days later, the police were at it again when they raided the studios and offices of People’s Choice (PC FM). The police subjected journalist Teboho Ratalane and the station’s management to questioning and forced them to reveal their sources. On Friday November 19, 2021, 357 FM was closed for failing to apologise in a manner befitting to Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA). The Basotho National Party (BNP) leader found the apology unacceptable by expressing his opinion on social media. I will be the first to admit that the ethics of some presenters at 357 FM are questionable but I believe closing it down was a bit extreme. These brutal crackdowns on the media did not take place in a military dictatorship in the 80s. They are happening in 2021, in a democratic dispensation that is admired for the constitutional right to freedom of speech but where Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli has spent approximately over a year constantly denigrating the media. During the last two weeks, the fight between the Police Commissioner and LEPOSA has become ugly with journalists covering the story becoming targets of attacks. You can’t but see the linkage when somebody with such a powerful platform has been relentlessly attacking individual journalists and media outlets and discrediting their reporting so persistently, and then you see members of law enforcement who are actually willing to be seen raiding the studios and offices of radio stations and attacking members of the media who are doing their job. It is as if a switch had been turned off in terms of respecting the role of a free press in a democracy. Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is not the prerogative of the Commissioner of Police or Chief Justice. Nor is it the privilege of the journalists. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech. A free press is fundamental to a democratic society. It seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion and holds those in authority to account. The press provides a platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. The press is the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler. We already know that the Police Commissioner dislikes the media. In fact, he has said he will use his gun against the media. Since that announcement, we have seen an accelerating campaign to crush independent media and erase perspectives that are contrary to that of the police authorities. That morning raid of PC FM might be the harshest action yet taken against independent media. It is a sad reminder that all the dire warnings of encroaching repression from the Police Commissioner have been prescient. The press makes mistakes and misjudgements and that’s a fact, but to think of a working journalist as somehow your enemy, somebody deserving of attack, does reflect this campaign of denigration and discrediting. And the law enforcement has been by far the main culprit. I wish to call for an end to this crackdown on independent media and multi-pronged attack on freedom of expression. Let me conclude with Scott Howard Phillips’ words of wisdom, “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.” Ramahooana Matlosa  

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