- Thabo Thakalekoala, one of Lesotho's most prominent journalists and media activists, is charged with "failing to report subversive activity" after first being detained for three days on treason charges. Mr Thakalekoala had read out an open letter calling for the arrest of the entire government over corruption charges.
Mr Thakalekoala was released on bail yesterday after having been arrested by Lesotho mounted police officers on 22 June, shortly after completing his morning "Rise and Shine" radio broadcast on privately-owned 'Harvest FM' radio. The mounted police are a division of the criminal investigation department (CID).
His arrest followed his reading on the air of an open letter to the Commissioner of Police, which argued for the arrest of Lesotho's Prime Minister, his entire Cabinet and Principal Secretaries on corruption charges. He was reportedly given the letter by members of the Lesotho Defence Force.
The letter he read on the air on described Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili as the "unwanted ruler of Lesotho" and said he deserved to be arrested because, as a person of South African origin, he had broken the law by running for office and holding the position of head of government.
The letter further referred to recent corruption accusations made against Lesotho's governing elite after selling themselves luxury vehicles for paltry sums. Some cabinet ministers and members of Parliament have been under fire for raiding public coffers by giving themselves interest free loans of up to 650,000 rand (euro 80,000) each in a country where some 400,000 people in a population of 2.4 million are expected to go hungry in the coming year.
The day after his arrest, Mr Thakalekoala began a hunger strike to try and persuade the government to release him or speed up his treason trial. The journalist told colleagues who visited him in his in Maseru police cell that he would not eat or drink until he was either released or his case brought to court. He had earlier told colleagues that he feared for his life in police cells.
CID officials took Mr Thakalekoala into custody and demanded that he reveal the names of the people who gave him the letter. When members of Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) - whose Lesotho chapter he is chairing - visited him, he refused to disclose his sources, saying "I am not obliged to reveal my sources as a journalist."
The media community in Lesotho has expressed concern over the charge, calling it "overkill". Thabo Motlamelle, deputy chairperson of MISA Lesotho, said "I do not think the government is serious about this charge because they cannot prove it. They have only proffered it so they can keep Thakalekoala out of circulation for some time and at a later stage, say, a few months down the line when they realise they cannot prosecute it successfully, they will withdraw the charge and release him."
Outraged reactions by listeners and MISA-Lesotho seem to have played a role in yesterday's release of Mr Thakalekoala. He is now charged under Article 9 of the 1984 internal security law, and his trial is scheduled to start on 25 July. Charges were defined as "failing to report subversive activity."
'Harvest FM' has often been accused by the government of being the headquarters of the All Lesotho Convention, the main opposition party. The station's editor and star presenter, Reverend Adam Lekhoaba, was deported to South Africa after February's general elections on the grounds that he had no work permit and had tried to "incite revolt" and "disturb the peace."
Mr Thakalekoala, who previously worked as a star reporter with afrol News' Basotho partner media 'Mopheme', has been targeted by authorities in Lesotho on several occasions, especially since he took charge of MISA-Lesotho, the region's principal press freedom organisation. Early this year, as the pre-election political climate was heating up, he and other prominent independent journalists were inundated with anonymous threatening phone calls.
The renewed attacks on Mr Thakalekoala have been widely condemned by press freedom organisations. In addition to MISA, Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) has called on Basotho authorities to drop all charges against the journalist. "This case shows that it has not understood that it is absurd to arrest a journalist on such extravagant charges and just leads to polarisation. Its battle against 'Harvest FM' is unfair and sterile," RSF said in a statement today.
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