WHETHER by accident or some stroke of irony, Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro chose the eve of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) commemorations to announce that his government is working on measures that will ultimately gag the media.
This will be done by classifying some documents and criminalising the publication of any information considered confidential by the state.
According to the United Nations (UN), “IDUAI 2020 will be focus on to the right to information in times of crisis and on the advantages of having constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information to save lives, build trust and help the formulation of sustainable policies through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis”.
Clearly the UN, of which Lesotho is a member state, recognises access to information as an indispensable right which should even be backed up by constitutional guarantees.
But given the recent pronouncements by Dr Majoro, analysts have said that it can be reasonably concluded that the government has no intention of providing constitutional and/or statutory guarantees for access to information.
If anything, the analysts say the government wants to take a leaf out of the book of the totalitarian Stalinist and fascist governments of the 20th century which practised extreme censorship of the media.
Addressing the media in Maseru over week ago, Dr Majoro said he and his ministers held a four-week induction course to ensure every one of them was fully aware of the requirements of their jobs.
He said one of the modules the ministers studied during the induction was on the importance of maintaining secrecy and confidentiality with respect to sensitive government business and information.
He said the government was now working on classifying its documents and correspondences. It would soon be an offence for the media or anyone else to publish or to be found in possession of classified government information and documents, he said.
“We were trained on classification of government documents. Once classified, the contents of those documents cannot be leaked,” Dr Majoro said.
“Even your inside source is not expected to leak those documents.
“As the fourth estate, you are always referring to well-placed inside sources in your stories. We keep wondering where those inside sources are.
“Government documents are leaked to social media and at times top classified secrets are leaked by your inside sources. But we also have government documentation that is not classified and is openly available. This is not about media censorship but the classification is done for public motives and often it is done to safeguard the sanctity of the state.”
He said in terms of the rules of classifying documents, some documents could be classified and remain confidential for up to 30 years. He said decisions made by leaders could remain classified long after they left office.
Coming as they did on the eve of IDUAI commemorations which are celebrated annually on 28 September, analysts say that the premier’s utterances show that he and his government have no intention of living up to the UN ideals of universal access to information.
“The premier’s statement coincides with the commemoration of the UN International Day for Universal Access to Information and the statement has a chilling effect on the right of Basotho to access and receive information,” Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Lesotho director, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, said.
Mr Ntsukunyane said the premier’s remarks showed the government’s quest to “micromanage, censor and even silence the media”.
“The prime minister’s statement poses a threat to press freedom and interferes with the editorial independence of the media.
“Section 14 of the constitution states that every person shall be entitled to, and shall not be hindered in his enjoyment of freedom to receive and communicate ideas and information.
“Among other things, the function of the media is to provide information to the nation. The media is an agenda setter. This is how the media, in any state, contributes to the development of the nation.”
Apart from going against the essence and ethos of the IDUAI, the government’s moves to criminalise the publication of what it considers confidential information goes against the progressive principles of enacting laws to promote the public’s access of information.
Lesotho has a long-standing Access to and Receipt of Information Bill which has been gathering dust in government and parliament offices.
With the government expected to begin implementing the much-delayed multi-sector reforms which include comprehensive media reforms, Mr Ntsukunyane said the expectation that by now Dr Majoro would have outlined government plans to ensure more transparency and accessibility of all state organs to media and public scrutiny.
“It is sad that we have a government that seeks to deny the media access to information in this day and age.
“Access to information is one of the pillars of democracy. Many governments across the globe are working to ensure that there is freedom of expression as well as access to information.
“Here in Lesotho we have the Access to and Receipt of Information Bill whose enactment into law has been pending since 2008.
“It is therefore shocking that at a time when we were expecting the honourable prime minister to indicate that plans to enact the bill into law are afoot, the government is instead moving to impose restrictions which will further deny journalists access to information. This is unfortunate. It is really shocking,” Mr Ntsukunyane said, adding that with its latest moves to classify information, the government had shown that it was not committed to advancing democracy.
His sentiments were echoed by Chofamba Sithole, a United Kingdom-based analyst on Southern African political and media affairs.
Mr Sithole said governments should tread very carefully when it came to classifying information or enacting laws to criminalise the publication of certain information.
He said while it was possible that the publication of certain information could compromise the stability and security of the state, many governments ended up taking advantage of laws prohibiting the publication of information to avoid exposure of their corrupt activities.
“Governing in a democracy should not be a state secret and as such it must be open to oversight by the press as well and the citizens from whom the government derives its power in the first place,” Mr Sithole said.
“Transparency and accountability are key tenets of a democratic system, and the media, as the fourth estate, has a duty to scrutinise the conduct of government in the public interest.
“Oftentimes, instead of facilitating legal access to public information, governments do the opposite. They erect barriers to access which are often justified on the specious grounds of protecting national security.
“But reporting on the Lesotho’s public procurement process and the awarding of tenders isn’t a national security issue. Scrutinising the financial probity of ministers and public officials isn’t a national security issue and neither is demanding transparency and accountability from an elected government.
“It is therefore disingenuous to shield the Lesotho government or any other government from scrutiny by putting legitimate public information behind the firewall of national security. A balance must be struck between genuine national security interests and the right of citizens and the press to public information,” Mr Sithole said.
His sentiments were echoed by a local analyst, Mr Rethabile Sello, who said he could not recall ever seeing any story in the media which exposed the country’s top security secrets thereby compromising its stability.
He said the stories which regularly appeared in the newspapers were about ministers’ corruption, infighting in the coalition governments and within the major parties such as the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC).
“Such stories do not constitute a national threat. They only expose the corruption and lack of stability in our political parties. The parties must not be conflated with the state.
“Ultimately there is no justification for the laws the government wants to introduce to criminalise the publication of certain information. One is tempted that they want to enact such laws to protect themselves from scrutiny and exposure whenever they loot resources as they did with the Covid-19 tenders which are now the subject of investigations by the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO). But enacting laws to censor the press will be a retrogressive step which will place Lesotho in the league of totalitarian states like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany,” Mr Sello said.