Letter critical of prime minister prompts treason charge

New York, June 25, 2007— Thabo Thakalekoala, a prominent reporter and presenter for Lesotho’s private radio station Harvest FM faces a charge of high treason for airing a controversial letter, according to news reports and a local press freedom group.

Thakalekoala read on the air on Friday a letter allegedly written by members of the Lesotho national army, denouncing Prime Minister Phakalita Mosisili as “the unwanted ruler of Lesotho.” The letter, broadcast on the early morning talk show “Rise and Shine,” included accusations of corruption involving Lesotho’s ruling elite. The Lesotho Mounted Police Service arrested Thakalekoala immediately after the broadcast, according to local reports. Thakalekoala appeared today in court in the capital, Maseru; his hearing was continued until Tuesday.

The government has called the letter a treasonous attempt to incite the army to revolt, and it invoked the 1984 Internal Security Act to charge Thakalekoala. Mothetjoa Metsing, the communications minister, recently accused the station of receiving financial support from the opposition party, All Basotho Convention. 

Lesotho is a tiny landlocked nation, surrounded by South Africa, with an estimated population of 2.1 million.

According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), a press freedom group, police demanded that Thakalekola reveal the names of the people who gave him the letter. MISA representatives, who visited Thakalekola in police custody in Maseru, said he has refused to reveal the sources.

The Harvest FM presenter told reporters on Sunday that he would not eat or drink until he was released or his case brought to court. An estimated 700 people have crowded outside police lockup in protest over the weekend, local journalists reported. Another crowd, estimated at more than 1,000 people, gathered in protest outside court today.

The arrest of Thakalekoala occurred after a weeklong curfew was lifted in the capital. Allegations of attempted political assassinations against three ministers and one opposition leader prompted the government to impose a 6 a.m.–6 p.m. curfew.

Thakalekoala is also the regional chairman of MISA and a correspondent for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the British Broadcasting Corporation. In February, just before general elections, Thakalekoala received death threats in connection with his reports on the former communications minister’s defection from the ruling party, MISA said.