Lesotho: Privately-owned radio stations off the air amid demonstrations


On 17 August 2011, four privately-owned radio stations went off the air for most of the day, on the third climactic day of protests against the government.

In the early hours of 17 August, only static could be heard from the four stations' assigned frequencies. The situation had Christian broadcaster Harvest FM and independent music and current affairs stations People's Choice FM (PC FM), MoAfrika FM and Thaha-Khube FM (TK FM) off the air. This happened a day after the government held an unusual meeting with at least two of the affected stations.

At the close of the business day, at least of the two stations' signals had been restored.
The radio stations had been providing live coverage of protests by factory workers that started on 15 August. The interruptions started less than 24 hours after a meeting between privately-owned radio station managers, the Acting Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Communications and the Chief Executive Officer of the Lesotho Communications Authority.

During a visit by MISA-Lesotho, Harvest FM Station Manager 'Malichaba Lekhoaba said she was called to the meeting by the Acting Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Communications, Ratokelo Nkoka, who made what she termed "threats", saying that her radio station was going to be "shut down" if it did not "mend (its) ways" as this was a sensitive issue.

According to Lekhoaba, Nkoka did not specify which areas needed to be "mended". He just said the radio station would be shut down if it continued to broadcast disrespectfully.

In response to a MISA-Lesotho inquiry, Nkoka said it was just a "bad coincidence" that the radio stations went off the air after their meeting and during the protests. He said that it was a technical issue and that even the national broadcaster Radio Lesotho was affected as the problem was with new FM transmitter equipment, although Radio Lesotho's FM broadcasting was uninterrupted from well before noon.

Since 15 August, Lesotho has experienced a protest movement headed by striking textile workers demanding higher wages. Opposition leaders were at the forefront of the demonstrations, which turned violent as several people were shot when police opened fire following a clash with protesters.

MISA-Lesotho calls on the government to respect its repeated promises to abide by press freedom standards, and to both ensure that the four stations are allowed to broadcast without interruptions and to prevent similar situations in the future. The organisation also calls on the government to fully inform the public as to the reasons why the stations went off the air and to allow all parties to fully investigate government claims that the interruptions were due to "technical" failures.