The Media Institute of Southern Africa has criticised a court interdict banning three Lesotho journalists from practising their craft.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) has condemned a court interdict against three Lesotho journalists, which bans them from practising journalism for two and three years respectively, calling it "a bad precedent".
Abel Chapatarango, Shakeman Mugari and Caswell Tlali were sued by their former employer, Lesotho Times and Sunday Express, after discovering that the three had opened a publishing company of their own.
The order granted by the Lesotho high court prevents the three men from practising journalism within 200km of the Lesotho Times offices in Maseru. It also stops them from opening any newspaper within the same radius for a period of 12 months.
Basildon Peta, the chief executive and director of Africa Media Holdings, which owns the two papers, hotly denied that the case had any bearing on media freedom.
Peta insisted it concerned "civil and criminal violations of the laws of Lesotho, period". He asked: "Are these three implying that because they are journalists, then they are above the law and immune to the statutes that govern all of us?"
However, the national director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Lesotho, Tsebo Mats'asa, said he was praying that Lesotho's court of appeal reversed the ruling.
The case set a bad precedent, Mats’asa said – especially as media practitioners have limited employment opportunities in Lesotho. He could foresee similar cases where media proprietors "are going to be a stumbling block for establishment of media initiatives".
The ruling finds that the three journalists breached competition law and their fiduciary duties, as Chapatarango was a director of both companies and Mugari and Tlali held senior positions.
In his judgment, Judge Lebohang Molete cites the Companies Act of 2011, which "stipulates that a director who has an interest in a transaction or proposed transaction with a company shall cause the nature and full extent of his interest to be entered in the register of directors; and shall also disclose it to the board".
However, Mats'asa objected that "media proprietors who are already seriously underpaying their employees for fear of competition, are now creeping towards claims of unfair competition. They know that some employees will surely join new publications, especially if they make better offers."
Mats'asa, who is also a media practitioner and policy advocacy activist, argued that having more newspapers "ensures pluralism and diversity of the media. However, [this] case has been decided by the court of law. What is left is for the respondents to … appeal."
Mugari told the Mail & Guardian that an appeal is in the pipeline. "We believe the interdict violates our constitutional right to earn a living and practise our profession," he said. "The interdict is tantamount to jailing us. It's unprecedented in Lesotho. How does the court expect us to survive when we are not practising our profession?"
In his anwering affidavit, Chapatarango echoed Mugari's sentiments: "I am a professional journalist ... for more than 15 years and I know of no other trade ... If I am being deprived of seeking employment or establishing a business entity that is aligned to my profession it would mean that I am denied the basic means of earning a livelihood."
Mugari described the ruling as a blow to media freedom in Lesotho. "Any democratic country needs as many media platforms as possible," he said.
"Lesotho currently has three main newspapers, two of which are owned by Basildon. The interdict means that we will not start our newspaper until September this year.
"In the meantime we will not be working as professional journalists. Surely any judgment that stops journalists from working and a newspaper from publishing for any period undermines media freedom?"
However, Peta said it was "unacceptable" for a director to set up a competing business without declaring his interest. "We entrusted Chapatarango with virtually the day-to-day running of this business. He mobilised our other key employees to support his project. He got them to be disloyal to us."
In his affidavit, Chapatarango denied Peta's claims. "At no point did [I] or any of the other two respondents jointly collude to sabotage the business interests of the alleged or at all … [We] decided to join forces in order to venture into a commercial enterprise and this initiative was neither out of stealth nor chicanery."
He added that his business was merely in its "floating stages" and not yet operational.