The pledge and commitment to professional and ethical journalism by journalists in Lesotho ahead of the country’s 2022 elections which were subsequently held on 7 October, is a progressive development that should be emulated by other journalists in the southern Africa region.
The pledge went a long way in securing an improved working environment for journalists in the country as they covered the 2022 elections.
Journalists in Lesotho signed an election reporting pledge, which was their commitment to covering the elections in an ethical and professional manner. Following the signing of the pledge, the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA), confirmed that the number of complaints against the media had reduced drastically.
The signing of the pledge was an initiative of MISA Lesotho.
Previously, the common trend in Lesotho, particularly ahead of National Assembly elections, is that journalists are unlawfully arrested, harassed, assaulted and tortured by elements of security agencies and political parties.
At the tail-end of 2021, there was a sudden spike in the number of attacks on the media, raising fears that the 2022 elections could be violent.
However, the 2022 elections were markedly different from the 2017 ones, which were marred by attacks on the media and presented massive safety challenges for the media.
However, not all journalists signed up for the pledge and in most cases, these are the reporters that have fallen foul of ethical reporting guidelines.
This comes amid calls to professionalise the media industry, particularly broadcasting, where some staffers do not have formal qualifications and training. This has led to journalistic ethical breaches.
The government has since come up with a policy regarding this. However, there is resistance to this policy despite its good intentions, which are meant to improve ethical reporting.
Lesotho is ranked 88th on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index. The country’s rankings in 2022 are unchanged compared to the 2021 rankings. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the country’s constitution.
The legislative environment
It is, however, trite to note that despite the improved working environment during the elections, these were held without the long-promised media reforms.
The media reforms were part of an omnibus reform Bill that was brought before parliament to foster a culture of stability after years of instability and political violence.
However, media reforms were silently removed from the omnibus Bill at the eleventh hour. This presents a missed opportunity for Lesotho as it charts a new path towards sustained democracy and participation for its citizens who depend on the media for access to information.
In 2021, the government of Lesotho attempted to promulgate two pieces of legislation; the Computer Crime and Cybersecurity Bill of 2021, as well as the Communications (Subscriber Identity Module and Mobile Device Registration) Regulations of 2021. The former is yet to be ascended into law, while the latter was gazetted into law in December 2021.
The elections were held amid concerns of media capture in Lesotho, particularly the private media, wherein interests of well-funded political parties and political players are aggressively pushed.
Due to sustainability challenges, private media find themselves in precarious positions. A sizable number of media houses have fallen prey to the predatory hand of the ruling elites. This presents an ethical dilemma for the media in Lesotho, hence the need for urgent multi-stakeholder conversations towards coming up with a sustainability framework for the independent media as it emerges from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is exacerbated by the fact that some media institutions’ owners, especially those who own radio stations, fall into the trap of becoming political puppets easily bribed by politicians to advance their own cause at the expense of journalistic ethics and principles, thereby compromising media professionalism. This is contrary to the media’s normative roles of mediating debates and anchoring informed decision-making in crucial national processes such as elections.
Safety of female journalists
Female journalists bear the brunt of attacks both offline and online, with attacks on them meant to discredit them and hound them out of the profession.
In 2017, political party activists threatened to rape a female journalist for a story she was reporting on. The activists were never reprimanded by their political party and were not prosecuted.
While this happened five years ago, such impunity leads to fewer females joining the journalism profession. Another female journalist was hounded into exile over her investigative stories, but her assailants have never been prosecuted.
This leads to a vicious cycle where fewer female journalists translates to lack of representation of females in media content.
This year’s elections saw minimal coverage of female politicians, with the media concentrating on males from the dominant parties.
This is despite the fact that there are a number of female-led political parties that needed media coverage.
However, MISA is inspired and encouraged by the pledge of the journalists in Lesotho to strictly adhere to the codes of ethics and observing the highest standards in reporting the elections which demonstrates their commitment to professionalism, media credibility and integrity.
In the same breath, MISA calls for the rest of the journalists to follow suit and ensure that they are duty bearers to their craft and trade, which is an enabler in the enjoyment of access to information and informed decision-making by citizens of the Kingdom.
MISA thus calls for the following minimum conditions during and post the 7th of October elections in Lesotho:
- The African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC), should insist that the new government should prioritise media reforms. While there has been improvement in the safety of journalists compared to previous elections, there is a need for media policy and regulations that promote the safety of journalists.
- In line with the Windhoek +30 – Information as a public good declaration, the government of Lesotho is encouraged to predicate its media law reform process on the need to ensure that the people of Lesotho have access to information held by public entities at all times.
- The government should order the police to firmly deal with wanton acts of lawlessness which pose a great risk to the lives of journalists, especially female journalists and media workers as well as their families.
- Political leaders should guard against making inflammatory statements that incite and excite their supporters to take the law into their own hands (against journalists and media workers), thus tarnishing the images of their respective parties and that of Lesotho, both online and offline
- SADC should insist that the Independent Electoral Commission Kingdom of Lesotho enforces the SADC Principles on the Conduct of Democratic Elections where it pertains to political parties and citizens’ equal and equitable access to the state media, notably the Lesotho National Broadcasting Service (LNBS).
- The Lesotho government should see to it that the internet is available, affordable and accessible at all times before, during and after elections in line with the provisions of the revised ACHPR Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.
- There is an urgent need for a media sustainability convention that is geared towards insulation of the private media from media capture to ensure that the media remains a source of verified and credible news for citizens to make informed decisions
MISA wishes the peoples of Lesotho well and that the right to expression is defended at all times even post the release of the results of the elections.
Regional Governing Council Chairperson
*The MISA Regional Observer Mission was led by the RGC Chairperson Golden Maugnanidze accompanied by fellow RGC members namely: Ms Teresa Ndanga, the chairperson of MISA Malawi; Father Dr Barnabas Simatende, chairperson MISA Zambia. Regional Secretariat members, Dr Tabani Moyo, Regional Director & MISA Zimbabwe Director and Mr Nqaba Matshazi, the Fundraising and Regional Campaigns Coordinator provided technical support to the team.