Lesotho: CPJ condemns suspension of private radio station

New York, July 28, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the decision by the Lesotho Communications Authority last week to suspend private radio broadcaster Harvest FM for three months. The decision to suspend the award-winning station on July 21 follows defamation complaints lodged separately by the principal secretary in the Ministry of Communications and the police commissioner last December.

Last December, the government-run Communications Authority wrote to Harvest FM requesting a response within 60 days to the two defamation allegations. The station failed to respond in time and was fined 15,000 rand (US$2,085), Harvest FM’s defense lawyer, Haae Phoofolo, told CPJ. A second letter from the authority demanding an official response within 60 days was sent to the station in April. Despite paying the penalty fine and responding to the second letter in time, the authority decided to suspend Harvest FM on July 21, Phoofolo said.

According to Communications Authority chairman Percy M. Mangoaela, Harvest FM could be suspended for an additional six months if the station is accused of further defamation charges after the three-month suspension period. The station was given only six hours notice to suspend all broadcasts on July 21, Phoofolo added.

Police Commissioner Malejaka Letooane had lodged a complaint with the Communications Authority after Harvest FM reported that police had killed a suspect in their custody in November 2007, station manager Mary Malichaba said. Another complaint came from the permanent secretary of the ministry of communications, Tseliso Mokela, who complained that the station’s popular phone-in talk show, “Rise and Shine,” was critical of the ministry. The permanent secretary’s complaint followed an interview with opposition leader Tseliso Manyeli, Malichaba said.

“Harvest FM has been repeatedly harassed by the Lesotho government for simply allowing the public a platform to express their opinions,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “CPJ calls on the Lesotho Communications Authority to revoke its decision to suspend Harvest FM immediately.”

The independent Harvest FM won two awards this year for its news and current affairs programming by Professional Management Review, a South African-based media consulting company.

According to Lesotho’s 2000 broadcasting law, no court order is required by the government to suspend a radio station, Phoofolo told CPJ. Authorities have, however, agreed to a requested meeting by the management at Harvest FM on July 29 to seek a negotiated settlement.

The station has come under state pressure since the February 2007 elections. The government perceived that it was supporting the new opposition party, the All Basotho Convention. In February 2007, station manager Reverend Adam Lekhoaba was deported and remains outside the country while his challenge in the high court continues.

The Communications Authority increased broadcasting fees from 800 rand (US$400) to 21,000 rand (US$3,000) in May, local journalists told CPJ.

Harvest FM is located in the capital, Maseru, within the landlocked country based in eastern South Africa.