Authorities in Lesotho must stop their sustained efforts to gag the press and should allow journalists to operate freely without fear of arrest or being forced to disclose their sources, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On November 14, police arrested and allegedly tried to suffocate Lebese Molati, a current affairs presenter on the privately owned 357 FM in the capital, Maseru, over statements he made about missing police guns during his “Semphu Se Nkha Kaea” (Where Is The News) daily show, according to a statement by the Lesotho chapter of the regional press freedom advocacy group Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. Molati said he was released that evening.
Four days later, the state broadcasting regulator, the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA), withdrew 357 FM’s broadcasting license for allegedly failing to comply with a directive of its Broadcasting Disputes and Resolution Panel, according to a statement the authority posted on Twitter and a media report. The panel had ordered the station to apologize to the leader of the opposition Basotho Action Party (BAP), Professor Nqosa Mahao, who accused the station of waging a campaign of character assassination, according to the statement and media report.
The station has been suspended and is off air until January 10, 2022, according to the LCA statement shared on Facebook and Molati.
LCA spokesperson Thato Ponya told CPJ via messaging app that the regulator relied on Sections 25(1) and 25(2) of the Lesotho Telecommunications Authority (Broadcasting) Rules of 2004 to impose a suspension for refusing to abide by the directive.
357 FM appealed to the Magistrate’s Court, which sent the case back to the regulator for determination, according to Molati and Ponya.
Separately, on November 17, police stormed the office of another privately owned radio station in Maseru, People’s Choice FM (PCFM), and questioned presenter Teboho Ratalane and some of the station’s management about a report about the missing police guns, although no one was arrested, according to a separate MISA Lesotho statement.
PCFM’s Ratalane told CPJ via messaging app that the police had wanted him to disclose the source of a police union press release that he had referred on air about the theft of 75 firearms, but he had refused to do so.
“The arrest and alleged assault of a radio presenter and the questioning of journalists over a story of public interest relating to missing police guns, followed by the suspension of 357 FM’s license, is extremely worrying and reinforces perceptions that press freedom remains under threat in Lesotho,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “Instead of censoring the press and demanding that journalists violate their ethics by disclosing their sources, authorities should encourage a diversity of opinion and views so that citizens can make informed decisions as the kingdom goes to the polls next year.”
357 FM’s Molati told CPJ that during his detention he was subjected to inhumane treatment by the police as they tried to force him to reveal his sources for the missing guns article. He alleged that the police assaulted him and tried to suffocate him with a plastic bag, a method of torture known as “tubing.”
“They did this twice. It’s the most painful thing ever. You can’t breathe,” he told CPJ.
Molati said he feared for his life. “I am not safe anymore. I was arrested and detained. They did not charge me, they just told me they will come and arrest me if they want, and this is because they know I am about to expose them,” he said.
MISA Lesotho National Director Ntsukunyane Lekheto told CPJ that police have become a threat to media freedom in this country, accusing them of intimidating conduct.
A police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli, told CPJ that police have been waiting for Molati to make himself available to the commissioner of police for questioning to conclude investigations into the missing guns, but that he had yet to show up.
However, police commissioner Holomo Molibeli said action would be taken against officers who allegedly tortured Molati, according to the MISA Lesotho statements.
When asked about police storming PCFM’s radio, Mopeli said it was purely an “investigative exercise,” which he claimed went smoothly due to the broadcaster’s cooperation.