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The 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. JORDAN.

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 to deliver.

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 issues.

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