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Battling censorship in Lesotho and South Africa

By Christina Okello

A newspaper editor is recovering from surgery after being nearly assassinated in Lesotho for an article he published about a high profile army commander. Meanwhile in South Africa, journalists claim victory in their censorship row with the state broadcaster, the SABC.

 

The truth is mightier than the guns of darkness, a top rights group has hit out in condemning an assassination attempt on the editor of the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express.

Lloyd Mutungamiri was attacked by two unknown gunmen on 9 July, in apparent retaliation for his article about an alleged exit package for the country’s army commander, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli.

His shooting came after a tough week for him and his company.

Earlier he and his colleague, Keiso Mohloboli were arrested by police and urged to reveal their sources. Mohloboli has now fled Lesotho and gone into exile.

"This is a matter that we urge our government to investigate thoroughly," Tsebo Matsasa, the director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in Lesotho told RFI.

"In the absence of an investigation, there's a lot of uncertainty in our country, especially among media practitioners.”

Those practicing the art of irreverence are the most worried, which happens to be the case of the Lesotho Times.

For years, the independent paper has openly criticized the government and army, but now its irreverent tone is under scrutiny.

"When you get to the point of assassination it says that you've rattled the bars a little too much," William Bird, the director of the NGO, Media Monitoring Africa, told RFI on the phone from South Africa.

It rattled the US State Department, which issued a sharp warning to the Lesotho government to refrain from intimidation.

The country's laws however make that difficult.

Colonial hangover

"One of the things common to the Southern African region is that despite many countries having legitimate and democratic governments coming into place as they acquired independence at various times, what is common among most of them is that they've retained former colonial laws," explains Bird.

"So what we're dealing with very often are still colonial hangovers."

The CEO of the Lesotho Times, Basildon Peta, would know a thing or two about headaches.

He's been charged with criminal defamation andcrimen injuria because of a column he wrote.

"These laws were last used in 1912!" says Tsebo Matsasa. "When it comes to a charge like crimen injuria [committing a crime], the challenge we have is that we don't establish the nature of the charge."

"And it's clear why, criminal defamation is a useful tool to keep people in check,” says Bird.

He welcomes recent moves by the ruling ANC party to remove criminal defamation from South Africa’s laws.

"We're making slow progress, but it always seems like it's two steps forward, and sometimes three steps back." 

Censorship

This frustration is equally felt among journalists in South Africa.

Eight employees of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, SABC, have been engaged in a long-standing dispute with their corporation over a controversial decision to ban footage of violent protests.

"Our Chief Operating Officer [Hlaudi Motsoeneng] began issuing verbal orders, and one of them was that we're not allowed to report negatively on president Zuma anymore,” Suna Venter, a senior producer at SABC told RFI.

Venter and seven of her colleagues were sacked for not towing the line.

But she says that self-censorship would have been counter-productive: "When 21 million people rely on the SABC exclusively for their news, if you censor that, you're in big trouble. And if you censor that with one week to go before the elections, you're in even deeper trouble."

On Wednesday, SABC dropped its appeal against a Labour court forcing it to take back Venter and her colleagues, meaning they should be available to cover the 3 August elections.

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