Toothless Watchdog – why the Lesotho media’s
election coverage matters
Michael J. Jordan
28 Jan 2015
Journalists are the primary watchdogs in any
democracy, but what happens when those watchdogs
lose their bite? In Lesotho, a pliant, uncritical
media is failing hold anyone to account in the
run-up to the February elections. By MICHAEL J.
For any democracy to thrive, its media must act as
watchdog – holding leaders accountable for their
words and deeds. And, yes, take a bite if they fail
That’s why it’s so troubling to see how toothless my
colleagues in the Lesotho media truly are,
especially when their nation needs them most – one
month away from the critical 28 February elections.
Basotho voters must choose which leaders to entrust
with guiding them out of months of political and
security crisis, sparked by 30 August coup attempt.
There’s more at stake than the fate of a tiny
mountain kingdom that just two years ago was touted
as a democratic success in Africa for its peaceful
handover of power – yet was derailed by its sixth
putsch in half a century of independence, which laid
bare endemic corruption and political violence.
More broadly, there may be repercussions for the
regional power, the 15-nation Southern African
Development Community. Lesotho is the latest test of
SADC’s ability to resolve conflicts, yet its lead
mediator, South African Deputy President Cyril
Ramaphosa, hasn’t uttered a word in public about the
root causes of corruption and political violence. If
this election spawns bloodshed, would South Africa
have to send in troops – as in 1998?
Then there’s the international community. It’s spent
well over $1 billion in foreign aid over the past
decade to help the Basotho tackle their severe
health, development and economic challenges – yet
has little to show for it. Just the opposite, in
fact: the HIV rate refuses to budge from 23 percent,
and Lesotho is sliding down the UN Human-Development
Index. The prime culprits: corruption, cronyism,
incompetence and pervasive apathy.
So which Basotho politicians, parties and ministry
officials would foreign donors prefer as their next
set of partners, especially as some deepen their
investment here? Or would it be time for the
international community to consider whether to pull
out of Lesotho – as the Irish Embassy did last year
(though Irish Aid remains) – and devote their
dollars elsewhere in sub-Sahara Africa?
Back to the Basotho journalists, then. With Lesotho
facing this fork in the road, the burden of a noble
mission falls to the media: to better inform and
educate society, enabling voters to make wiser
decisions about whom to elect. Who’s telling the
truth? Who isn’t? Who’s delivered results? Who
hasn’t? And why?
Instead, the Lesotho election-coverage is deeply
flawed, marked by an amnesic superficiality that
largely ill-informs, misinforms, even disinforms,
the audience. In other words, much of the media does
more harm than good.
“It’s a general issue
of professionalism: they work under no professional
guidelines, are understaffed, without the wisdom of
elders to guide them,” says Tsebo Matsasa, national
director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s
Lesotho chapter. “As a result, they become the
public-relations officers of whomever they cover.
Like being given a press-release, they take it as it
is, but don’t interrogate what they say, digging
deeply into it. Then they report the next story,
forgetting what happened yesterday.”
I’ll analyze one typical example below, to
illustrate. But first, an important caveat: I don’t
blame my Basotho colleagues for this coverage. As
Matsasa suggests, it’s not their fault. I’ve learned
first-hand: no university here offers young Basotho
a real pound-the-pavement journalism education. Nor
is there sustained training for working journalists.
While Mozambique is awarded a five-year, US$10
million “Media Strengthening Program,” courtesy of
USAID, Lesotho journalists attract no such support.
Since many Lesotho editors themselves have no formal
training – instead, learned on the fly – it’s
basically “the blind leading the blind” when they
send out their reporters to cover politics,
economics, health, development and other vital
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