July 10, 2007

Independent media threatened by advertising boycott

“Reporters Without Borders” has voiced concern about the survival of the privately-owned weekly "Public Eye" following an order from the government to all state and parastatal agencies at the start of June 2007 not to buy any more of its advertising space. "Allowing political and malicious considerations to determine where state advertisements and announcements are placed is outrageous and should be banned by the Lesothan government," the organisation said. "Not only does it threaten the existence of a free press in Lesotho but it is also a disguised form of censorship and an abuse of authority. The government does not own the agencies of the state and should not use them for its petty political ends."
Several state and parastatal advertisers told "Public Eye" editor Bethuel Thai at the start of June that they had received an order not to buy any more space in his newspaper. When Thai asked to see a copy of the order, they all referred him to government secretary Tlohang Sekhamane, who confirmed that the government had taken this decision but said no written order existed. Nonetheless, "Public Eye" did in the end obtain a copy of a message from the local government ministry's human resources department to project and section chiefs saying: "I have been ordered to inform you that requests for advertising services to the newspaper 'Public Eye' and radio Harvest FM must cease with immediate effect. I thank you for your usual cooperation." Since then, no request for advertising has been made by the agencies involved. As a result, Thai was forced to tell his employees he was suspending payment of all salaries until further notice, as 85 per cent of the newspaper's revenue comes from advertising. He has had no success with his attempts to contact senior government officials to request an explanation or propose a solution. Thai estimates that his newspaper will fold within six months if there is no change in the current situation.
Founded by Thai in 1997 and originally in the form of a photocopied newsletter, "Public Eye" is one of the Kingdom of Lesotho's few independent newspapers, and the most widely-read one. Harvest FM has been furthermore accused by the government of being the mouthpiece of the main opposition party, the All Basotho Convention. One of its leading journalists, Thabo Thakalekoala, is currently charged with "failure to report subversive activity" as a result of reading a letter on the air calling for the prime minister's resignation which he said he got from members of the army. (Reporters sans Frontières, Paris)

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