Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane must repudiate threats made by the military against Lesotho Times investigative journalist Pascalinah Kabi and ensure that the press can function without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) public affairs officer Lt. Col. Mashili Mashili accused Kabi of "infiltrating the LDF with the intention to spy" and endangering the security of the country by publishing information from a "restricted" military document, according to a copy of a December 5 letter seen by CPJ and a statement issued by the independent MNN Center for Investigative Journalism in Maseru, of which Kabi is a board member.
The independently owned Lesotho Times daily newspaper, and its sister paper, the Sunday Express, published articles by Kabi on November 29 and December 2 about demands for compensation made by soldiers who were accused of mutiny between May and July 2015 by the government at the time. The 45 soldiers, some of whom were detained and allegedly tortured, were reinstated in the LDF in February 2018, according to the Lesotho Times.
Mashili also accused Kabi in the letter of a "calculated attempt to foment hatred and create a "chaotic situation in the LDF."
"We urge the government of Prime Minister Tom Thabane not to tolerate threats by the military aimed at silencing the press and to publicly defend the right of journalists to publish articles in the public interest," said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal. "Given Lesotho's history of instability and coups, its citizens have every right to be informed of the potential for instability when it comes to the affairs of the military."
Government spokesman Nthakeng Selinyane told CPJ today, "All I can authoritatively say is any impression of suppression of right of persons to express themselves about their workplace environment, and intimidation of media probing into the workings of any public institution or organization is contrary to the ethos of this government as a general rule, and the security establishment shan't be a holy cow in this regard." He added, "Options for remedying any disaffection in this regard are prerogative of my principals, which I can publish once they've been decided."
In his letter to Kabi, Mashili said the LDF had the mandate from the government to unite the defense force under a unified command structure. "That is why we feel duty bound to put it in no uncertain terms that anyone...who dare(s) to torpedo the LDF command's initiatives to accomplish that mandate, the LDF will not take that lying down," Mashili wrote.
Mashili referred to the July 2016 assassination attempt on the Lesotho Timesformer editor Lloyd Mutungamiri, noting that there was a case before a court. He was referring to the much-delayed trial of five LDF officers accused of the crime.
"We understand that the editorial and staff of your paper are hurting as a result of what happened to your editor some time ago," the letter states. "But the stance which the paper has
adopted against the LDF does no justice to its Command and the entire Basotho nation. It is common cause that there is a case before the court of law. Why not wait for the courts to dispense justice? We urge you not to act as though you will be spared the brunt of the chaotic situation you are fomenting," Mashili wrote.
Tsebo Mats'asa, the national director of the Lesotho chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, told CPJ that the media freedom organization would be meeting Mashili today "with a view to work towards resolution and amicable peaceful conclusion to the matter." He added, "Threats to media are worrying especially when there is still a pending case that involves shooting of an editor allegedly by the members of the Lesotho Defense Force."
Lesotho Times editor Herbert Moyo referred requests for comment to editor-in-chief Basildon Peta, who did not respond to an email and WhatsApp requests to his two cellphone numbers for comment.
Mashili did not respond to an email and a WhatsApp request for comment.