May 3rd marks World Press Freedom Day. This year’s theme is: “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights.”
The inception of World Press Freedom Day dates back to 1993, when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly declared May 3 as the day to commemorate press freedom.
May 3 was chosen to mark the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek adopted by journalists participating in a seminar organized by UNESCO in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991.
As we commemorate World Press Freedom Day, it is important to remember that the day is as old as the present constitution of Lesotho. Our Constitution came into force in 1993, shortly after the return to multiparty democracy.
This, therefore, means 2023 marks 30 years of World Press Freedom Day, the Constitution of Lesotho, and multiparty democracy.
I wish to plead with the members of MISA Lesotho, the National Governing Council (NGC), and the Secretariat that from next year we should bundle World Press Freedom Day, the Constitution, and Democracy together and commemorate them concurrently.
Free press, constitution, and democracy are symbiotic; the Constitution protects the media to protect democracy.
It is important for the media to embark on a campaign to encourage people from all aspects of society to read, embrace and live the Constitution and to raise awareness on the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Commemorating the Constitution each year will help us achieve this mission.
This momentous occasion presents an opportunity for us to look back in history on the progress made in the past 30 years toward true constitutionalism, consolidating democracy, and ensuring that the media’s mandate to serve as the watchdog of our constitutional democracy is respected.
Our position as the Lesotho Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Lesotho) is clear and principled: it is almost impossible to ensure independent, pluralistic, and free media that will strengthen our constitutional democracy if both press freedom and the right to access to information are not expressly protected by the constitutional.
Basotho deem press freedom and access to information so essential that they have demanded that they be enshrined in the constitution as part of the Bill of Rights which secures fundamental human rights.
The people have spoken and must be heard.
Ensuring that the comprehensive national reforms which reflect the will of the people are implemented has always been and remains a top priority of MISA Lesotho.
We, therefore, want to remind the leaders of this country and assure Basotho that MISA Lesotho has not forgotten the reforms. Some seem to have forgotten them.
Prime Minister Ntsoakoane Samuel Matekane and his coalition partners committed to prioritizing the reforms, however, over six months since the new government was installed, work in earnest to implement the reforms is yet to begin.
While we understand that Prime Minister Matekane’s government faces a shopping list of problems, we call on it to prioritise reforms as it promised and take meaningful steps to resuscitate the reform process.
The government should devote resources and political will to make sure that the reforms happen as soon as possible. It should also work in good heart with all the partners feeling productively engaged and involved, and taken seriously.
We implore all the media houses to consistently keep reminding the political leaders that Basotho cannot afford to wait any longer for the reforms – the only surest way at the moment to ensure that press freedom and access to information are expressly protected by the constitution.
MISA Lesotho is also aware that the traditional business model for journalism is in steep decline, as audiences move to satisfy their needs for information on the new digital platforms. Newspaper sales are plummeting as readers opt for free information on the internet.
At the same time, the advertising money that paid the biggest portion of journalists’ salaries is moving elsewhere. Journalists and media houses are becoming poorer and poorer.
The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has caused further devastation.
The media is struggling to find and keep skilled staff, from journalists to editors. When job opportunities arise, skilled staff leave suddenly, causing instability.
These developments affect the independence of the press as broke journalists and media houses can be captured easily.
Big advertisers like mobile network operators, commercial banks, and state-owned enterprises have found it easy to exploit the vulnerability of the media houses through tactics like pressing for uneconomical advertising rates.
Despite paying very low rates, the big advertisers still want to influence content. Some have made veiled attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen publications that serve up favourable coverage. Their goal is always very clear, to make the press serve their interests rather than the public.
It is a perfect storm, with profound implications for our democracy.
Under these circumstances, it is important to come together to find ways of putting media houses that make a positive contribution to civic life onto an independent and self-sufficient footing. Such media houses should be helped to attain a stable state where revenue comfortably covers expenditure, to encourage quality and prevent misuse.
The government should consider measures such as tax breaks and waived or low broadcast licence fees.
A framework should also be created as a matter of urgency to ensure that government advertising is deployed fairly and should be used for the benefit of media diversity, quality, and pluralism.
Consideration should also be given to the creation of a national fund to support quality independent journalism.
The logic is simple: if citizens do not have access to information through independent and in-depth journalism, their participation in the democratic process is necessarily limited. This can have dire consequences for our democracy.
We, however, cannot pretend that all media outlets make a positive contribution to civic life. The measures suggested above should only support quality independent reporting. Thank you.
Kananelo Boloetse is the Chairperson of the Lesotho Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Lesotho). He made the remarks on Wednesday, 3 May 2023, on the occasion of commemorating the World Press Freedom Day.