THE government has committed to stepping up investigations into the shooting of Lesotho Times and Sunday Express editor Lloyd Mutungamiri and facilitating the return of exiled journalist Keiso Mohloboli as part of a drive to create an enabling environment for the media in the country.
The four-party governing coalition has also pledged to resume the publication of the state-owned weekly newspaper Lentsoe la Basotho and its English version Lesotho Today which had been suspended by the previous regime for allegedly being critical of the then Pakalitha Mosisili-led government.
This was said by Communications, Science and Technology Minister Joang Molapo this past week during a meeting with representatives from Media Institute of Southern Africa Lesotho chapter and Lesotho Sports Reporters Association following his recent appointment.
Chief Molapo, and 26 other ministers and their deputies, was appointed on 23 June 2017 after the inauguration of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane the week before.
This was after the 3 June 2017 National Assembly elections had resulted in a hung parliament resulting in Dr Thabane’s All Basotho Convention, Alliance of Democrats, Basotho National Party and Reformed Congress of Lesotho cobbling up the 63 seats they garnered to form government.
During the meeting, the media representatives outlined their challenges and expectations from the minister, while the latter spelled out his vision.
The media representatives raised various issues of concern, including the still unsolved almost fatal shooting of Mr Mutungamiri and Ms Mohloboli’s exile in South Africa.
Mr Mutungamiri was brutally shot at his home in Upper Thamae in the wee hours of 10 July 2016 in what appeared to be a well-orchestrated assassination attempt by unknown assailants.
He has since undergone specialist surgery in South Africa to repair his shattered lower jaw and to remove a bullet that was lodged in his left ear and other bullet fragments from his face.
Following the shooting, Ms Mohloboli – who also worked for the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express — quit her job and fled the country fearing for her life.
No arrests have been made over Mr Mutungamiri’s shooting, almost a year after the incident.
The media representatives also called for an urgent revision of the media policy and for the minister to revoke decisions made by the previous government to suspend the awarding of licenses to three community radio stations.
They also called for the reopening of Lentsoe la Basotho and Lesotho Today, whose operations had been suspended in April this year by Dr Mosisili’s administration over its alleged “biased reportage” against his government.
Responding to the concerns raised, Chief Molapo said there was a “deep commitment” by the new government to freedom of expression and press freedom.
“We are desperate to reach a point where you (media) will feel that the environment in which you operate in makes you feel safe,” the minister said.
“We are determined to ensure that there is tolerance in the media space.”
Chief Molapo said his first port of call was to order the reopening of the state-owned publications.
“Yesterday (Thursday) I gave an instruction to start the process of ensuring that Lesotho Today becomes operational again and it is in the same breath that we have met with our political counterparts to make them understand the importance of a free media,” he said, adding that the new government was committed to helping the media to operate with high ethical and professional standards.
It was imperative, the minister said, for the media to be allowed to play its role as a societal watchdog.
“We deeply hold the belief that one cannot be a player and a referee at the same time, hence the government wants to move to a position where state-media outlets are thrown into the corporate and private space. Government will then be able to effectively play its regulatory role in the media space,” he said.
Reacting to the concerns raised about the media policy, Chief Molapo said the ministry was working on it.
“However, it might be too premature to say we would have finished the process by the end of 2017 because we will only have a principal secretary (PS) in office by the end of July,” he said, adding that the tenure of the ministry’s former PS, Tšeliso Khomari, ended in April 2017.
“Thereafter, we will then be able to produce a white paper (policy proposal document).
“We will then give members of the public three months to debate on the paper and give feedback. After that, we will issue a green paper.”
A green paper is a document containing ideas about a particular subject that is published by a government so that people can discuss them before any decisions are made.
Chief Molapo added: “So, I think by 2018 we will know what out media policy should look like. It should address some of the worrisome issues in the sector.”
Touching on Ms Mohloboli’s situation, he said the government was already working towards facilitating her return.
“I am happy to report that contact has already been made with Amnesty International to facilitate Mme Keiso’s safe return to Lesotho.”
The minister also he was very much aware of the “fact” that the police took a long time to investigate some criminal cases while others took a shorter time.
He said the law enforcement agency needed to show more commitment in investigating all cases, adding that keeping quiet on Mr Mutungamiri’s shooting would easily be interpreted as a sign of lack of interest.
“But, I must assure you that we are never going back to a point where editors are shot and police investigations just go cold,” said Chief Molapo.
“I understand that some cases can take years to investigate, but there has to be commitment from the police to expeditiously probe them. No matter how long it takes, perpetrators must be brought to book.”
The minister also noted that the threats to media practitioners over the past two years would not “just be erased”, adding that a culture of intolerance had developed in Lesotho which needed to be nipped in the bud.
Chief Molapo cited the recent mobbing of the MoAfrika FM radio station and harassment of South African Broadcasting Corporation journalist Nthakoana Ngatana by supporters of the new government as issues that needed to be addressed.
“There is a need for all stakeholders to work hard in finding a meeting point where they can sit down and define what is expected of each party,” he added.