For African election watchers, 2015 is proving to be a showcase year. Already, Nigeria’s elections have been postponed amid widespread controversy, generating sustained international media attention. Crucial elections are also on the horizon in some of Africa’s most important countries, including Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire, both of which have made impressive democratic gains in recent years.
Soon, citizens of the conflict-racked, energy-rich states of Sudan and South Sudan will also head to the polls. Unsurprisingly, much of the already limited bandwidth for interest in African affairs has been consumed by this handful of countries. But for watchers of Southern Africa, the February 28 elections in tiny Lesotho are seen as significant in their own right, for good reason.
The importance of Lesotho is largely a result of the fact that it supplies much-needed water to the booming industry, mining and housing sectors of Gauteng, arguably the diplomatic and economic hub of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Following an attempted coup in Lesotho in August 2014, leaders from South Africa, including President Jacob Zuma, have made at least 10 official visits to the country, attempting to heal major political rifts, which have kept the capital Maseru on edge.
Fraught with uncertainty
After a negotiated settlement to bring forward the 2017 elections to this month, the political situation in Lesotho has been fraught with uncertainty, leading to outbreaks of violence. In this environment, the role of the media – which has typically received high marks relative to its peers in the rest of Africa – has come under renewed scrutiny. In its most recent survey, international watchdog Freedom House noted the “government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press”, and academic Khabele Matlosa found that, by 2008, Lesotho’s “media [had] become more vibrant and continuously keeps government in check”.
On the whole – and notwithstanding the alleged coup attempt last year – Lesotho is often regarded as a democratic standard-bearer in Africa. In SADC, for instance, Lesotho is part of a small minority of only four countries to experience a change of political party in the executive by means of elections (the others being Mauritius, Zambia and Malawi). Lesotho also ranks in the top 10 of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a survey used to measure and assess good governance and policy outcomes across the continent. In this same survey, Lesotho ranks in the top 10 of the most improved countries over the past five years, a list topped by Côte d’Ivoire.
Despite these positive assessments, the recent history of Lesotho’s media is a bit more complex. The local press is active, both in print and online, with particularly good coverage of political affairs from Public Eye, the Lesotho Times and Sunday Express. Their collective coverage of the gradual unravelling of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s coalition government – the first such governing coalition in SADC’s history – has not always included comprehensive context, but has contained enough to provide a usually accurate tracking of the machinations and consequences of state power.
Yet reports in local newspapers and on radio often suffer from limited analysis, incomplete reporting and a tendency to elevate a single political perspective. Mindful of the economics of operating a radio station in a developing nation, many station managers require political parties to pay for their airtime, making political infomercials and editorial content sometimes indistinguishable to their listeners.
Additionally, threats of defamation lawsuits often lead to self-censorship, with authorities using this rationale to suspend radio licences, most recently in September 2010. Similarly, a woeful number of print articles in Lesotho are often no more than lightly edited press releases, containing little reporting and, again, privileging a single perspective. As a result of these related factors, news coverage in Lesotho is often heavily biased and intertwined with party messaging.
Applicable to international media as well
The inherent shortcomings and criticisms of Lesotho’s press are applicable to the international media as well. After the attempted coup last year, the Wall Street Journal gathered only two original quotes: from a receptionist at Maseru’s most posh hotel and from a security guard at the United States embassy.
Other reports fuelled uncertainty and hysteria, claiming, for example, the country’s top army general had retreated to the mountains with the country’s special forces, equipped with “artillery, mortars, and small arms”. Several days later, an SABC team spotted him at Maseru’s airport – with no artillery in tow.
Troubling articles were also produced by Agence France-Presse, which ran a report on purported political assassination plots led by West African mercenaries, and a story on the arrest of Lesotho Defence Force personnel in South Africa. These inaccurate and poorly fact-checked stories relied only on statements from leaders of one political party and a police official loosely allied with them.
Finally, there was a piece written by a generally well-respected Guardian correspondent that was long on theory about poverty, high HIV prevalence and changing gender roles as factors in the country’s political turmoil, but short on actual sourcing to support these claims, many of which contradicted actual in-depth research on the topic.
The inaccurate coverage of Lesotho’s political context has had profound consequences in the country. It has meant domestic journalists are covering political events and reporting verbatim what politicians say without questioning the accuracy of their statements or raising broader questions. More widely, the press has failed to hold politicians accountable, either for their words or their subsequent (in)actions.
This means that Lesotho’s politicians are free to ignore the press as unimportant, or to manipulate local reporters to suit their interests. This worrying trend has led to a system characterised by mistrust among Lesotho’s citizenry and impunity for politicians and military officials.
That a free and vibrant press is a cornerstone of democracy is undeniable, in Lesotho and elsewhere in the world. It informs public debate and prompts dialogue on topics crucial to national development, holds leaders accountable and provides a public record by which to measure progress. In the light of these facts, both Lesotho’s domestic press corps and international media professionals should consider several steps to inform their coverage of next week’s election and thereafter.
First, local journalists need to incorporate more analysis into their writing and objectively question public officials – not an easy task, especially considering that many journalists have reputations for being partisan.
This phenomenon is surely influenced by the slim budgets with which many media houses in Lesotho are forced to operate, but strong local examples of analytical reporting along with the encouragement of international partners can help to fill the void. Already, the presence of the SABC is helping to boost professionalism in the overall coverage of Lesotho’s electoral process.
Second, the international media – who will, in typical and unfortunate fashion, parachute into the country a mere few days before the election – need to identify better sources before arriving. Ideally, this roster would include local informed commentators who are not active politicians. There are several reputable nongovernmental organisations with strong track records from which to choose, including the Transformation Resource Centre, the Lesotho Council of Non-Governmental Organisations and the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
Lesotho’s media professionals have largely been spared the crackdowns on press freedom that have swept through Africa, particularly in the context of elections – from Swaziland to Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as Burundi and Sudan, among others – and that should be applauded.
For better or worse, Lesotho helps to set the press freedom bar in Africa. As such, vigilance must be exercised – inside the country and out – to ensure that efforts to silence, co-opt or otherwise marginalise Lesotho’s journalists do not succeed.
John Aerni-Flessner is an assistant professor of African and world history at Michigan State University. Charles Fogelman is a research fellow with the Cultures of Law in Global Contexts Project at the University of Illinois. Jeffrey Smith is an Africa specialist at the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Human Rights.