- The private media in Lesotho is currently against the wall, where it is perceived as a "get-rich-quick scheme" for people who are desperate for the fast buck. This is the common opinion of private media houses proprietors in Lesotho, who have painted a picture of a discouraging status quo in private media circles as Press Freedom Day approaches. Also their interest organisation, MILES, is ridden by scandals.
The Basotho proprietors of independent newspapers believe that since 'Mo-Afrika' newspaper and radio proprietor Candi Ramainoane paid Nokong MP Moeketsi Sello maloti 165,000 (euro 20,100) last year, the waiting list for litigation cases against media houses has undergone a sudden increase.
In line is a record total of maloti 1,800,000 (euro 220,000) claimed against the newspaper 'Public Eye', and an out-of-court settlement resulting in 'The Mirror' paying former Cabinet Minister Mopshatla Mabitle, MP, maloti 20,000 (euro 2,400) in monthly instalments over two years.
In a worsened situation, 'The Mirror' newspaper is today without computers and other valuables after the sheriff of the High Court enforced a default judgment following a court action by former Media Institute of Lesotho (MILES) chairman Nthakeng Selinyane. MILES, ironically, is the Lesotho-affiliate of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the major press freedom group in the region.
Mr Selinyane took three media houses to task for reporting on his suspected embezzlement of maloti 13,000 (euro 1,600) from MILES coffers, immediately after losing his chairmanship in last year's annual general meeting in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
'Mohahlaula' and 'Public Eye' are the two other Lesotho weeklies cited in the default judgment by the High Court. The sheriff also cleared the 'Mohahlaula' office but 'Public Eye', for whom Mr Selinyane is ironically its columnist, managed to stop them through its attorney. Mr Selinyane and former treasurer Neo Ramarou are currently out on bail, while they face charges of theft instigated by MILES.
- We are today forced to say nothing about anybody because people have suddenly developed a habit of taking newspapers to court, said 'The Mirror' proprietor Tebello Pitso-Hlohlongoane.
The day the sheriff cleared the offices of the two media houses, Ms Pitso-Hlohlongoane was attending a one-day seminar where, ironically, the media law was scrutinised by Members of the two Houses of the Maseru Parliament and media practitioners on 5 April. Media practitioners believe the media law is a step forward in curbing the scourge that has permeated the annals of the private media.
MILES information officer Tom Mapesela said the main cause for the scourge is the absence of an all-encompassing media policy. "As we have fallen victim to an unfavourable legal structure and court judgments, the media is today exploited as a get-rich-quick strategy by people who talk democracy yet they want to silence the media," he said.
Mr Mapesela believes that there is a solution, either a media Ombudsman or a media council that would act as a regulatory body that would, in adherence to the media law, intervene in defamation disputes - and as a last stop before the courts of law.
'Mo-Afrika' editor and proprietor Candi Ramainoane agreed with Mr Mapesela, saying the media Ombudsman is a welcome alternative to the saddening scenario where defence lawyers make thousands of maloti out of media houses that are recipients of civil summonses.
- In the absence of the media Ombudsman any issue pertaining to any contention that is subsequent to any published material ends up in the courts of law no matter how small or stupid the contention is, he said. "As a result, both of the two parties end up paying heavy court fees in order for them to get a hearing."
Mr Ramainoane added that the party that fails or that cannot afford to pay the legal fees would lose the case, and have them silenced by the courts of law. "Whether one has the money or not is immaterial because with the amount that the aggrieved persons claim against the private media it is very difficult, in fact impossible, for one not to engage the lawyers to defend the case," he said.
He however said MILES is not representative of the media fraternity. Mr Ramainoane attended the Journalists Under Fire conference in Cape Town last May and complained about an uncooperative national chapter in his fundraising efforts to pay for the maloti 165,000 (euro 20,000) in damages.
- The media practitioners who are on the forefront, namely the senior journalists, editors and owners of both print and electronic media should come together and form an association that would deal with press freedom and freedom of expression head-on but in a manner that would benefit the Lesotho private media, said Mr Ramainoane.
He argued that MILES is not a bad concept, but does not have the same vision as the private media and in his experience, does not support sections of the private media in need. "Instead, it has stood by those in authority in its effort to suppress the free press," he said.
Mr Ramainoane made an example of a January 2001 incident following a front page sub-title, "... entsa lakabane ka kukung – ... alligator taken out of the vagina," written above a photograph of His Majesty King Letsie III, which accompanied his message for the New Year. He said MILES, under the chairmanship of Mr Selinyane, "just went out of its way to criticise its own member 'Mo-Afrika' for having allegedly wrote a defamatory article against the King," he said.
Mr Selinyane, a university lecturer currently on studying for a doctorate in Durban, has emerged in interviews as a classic example of outsiders who have infiltrated the private media to serve their individualistic interests, topped by a desire to silence the media.
'Public Eye' editor-in-chief Bethuel Thai, a founder member of MILES, said second to the most serious problem of lack of training programmes for media practitioners, there is an opposition from the enemies of press freedom. "Press freedom has too many enemies, even within the media industry," he said.
- If I were to tabulate the enemies of press freedom in Lesotho in a chronological order, MILES would be the number one enemy, he said. "This is an organisation whose office bearers pretend to be on the side of the media whereas all their actions are intended to see the downfall of the independent media," added Mr Thai.
He said it is a circus where office bearers fight over food and money to the detriment of the independent press, which are supposed to be its members. "I cannot remember anything important for the independent press coming from MILES. You can mention them all; training, defence and protection, development, you name it," Mr Thai said.
There are instances, experienced by members, where people from within the MILES membership play double standards. A MILES member who is an executive member of a football association once ordered security to stop a journalist from covering a football tournament. In another instance, a MILES member was sent by a high-profile figure to obtain information from a journalist, within MILES, so he could sue for defamation.
These, according to Mr Thai, were instances that took place after MILES had successfully rid its membership of members of Lesotho's armed forces, who had joined in large numbers. A former chairman Qamako Mahao, an insurance broker employed by the Lesotho National Insurance Group (LNIG), allegedly attempted to prevent move, but failed dismally.
Commenting on the issue, Mr Mapesela said the establishment of a media overseer could solve this problem of spies, once and for all.
MILES is experiencing a haemorrhaging of members, where participation is drying up. Members who have declined to be named say the problem is nil service delivery. But national director Malefetsane Nkhahle saw it from a different perspective. He said there are some media house proprietors, whose identities he declined to divulge, who have threatened journalists under their employ with expulsion if they associate with MILES.
- What is discouraging about these individuals is that they advocate freedom of association, criticise factory bosses who discourage trade union activity in their premises, yet they themselves are perpetrators of the same evil that undermines the constitutional right to freedom of association, Mr Nkhahle noted.
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