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Lesotho

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Last updated on 30.10.2020 at 07:05

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Police brutality a continuing crisis, COVID-19 related protests documented

Police brutality a continuing crisis, COVID-19 related protests documented

As the country went into lockdown to curb COVID-19, images emerged on social media showing brutality by security forces while enforcing the lockdown restrictions; As COVID-19 and its economic effects began to be felt by workers and small business people, several strikes and protests by different groups were reported.

Allegations of police abuse and torture, which have been continuously documented by rights groups such as Amnesty International, continued to be reported this year amid COVID 19 restrictions.

In the first week of April 2020, the Lesotho government declared a 21-day national lockdown due to COVID-19, and on 6th April, the first day of the lockdown, images emerged on social media showing brutality by security forces while enforcing the lockdown restrictions.

Videos which went viral showed police and soldiers making citizens roll on the ground and beating them up. The police said they would take action against officers who violate rights while enforcing the restrictions.

In response to the allegations of police brutality, on April 18th 2020, Prime Minister Tom Thabane announced that he had deployed the army onto the streets to "restore peace and order, ” accusing some law enforcement officials of infringing on democracy. This was a day after the constitutional court stopped Prime Minister Tom Thabane from suspending the police commissioner.

Peaceful Assembly

As COVID-19 and its economic effects began to be felt by workers and small business people, several strikes and protests by different groups were reported.

Health professionals go on strike over COVID-19 demands

On 6th April 2020, nurses, doctors and laboratory technicians in the country announced that they would be going on strike to demand risk allowances and protest the lack of protective gear in hospitals amid reports of suspected COVID-19 cases. According to representatives from their respective associations which had come together under one coalition to raise their issues, the groups had raised their grievances with the government but were yet to receive a response.

The strike was called off after a two-day meeting with the Health Minister, in which the government agreed to pay a risk allowance of 30 percent of their monthly gross salary to each health professional.

Two and a half months later however, the health professionals embarked on another strike on 13th July to protest the government’s failure to address their demands. The strike proceeded despite threats from the Health Minister, who warned of sanctions, calling it an illegal action. The action lasted two weeks and ended after several meetings, where the government committed to pay monthly allowances ranging from M2000 to M3500 (USD 122-213) to each health professional and to provide them with protective gear.

After continued failure by government to honour its commitments, health workers announced in mid-September 2020 that they would down tools for a third time if their demands were not met.

Protests held to demand COVID-19 relief funds

In separate developments, garment workers in the country went on strike on 17th June 2020 to demand unpaid wages which the government had committed to pay during the COVID-19 lockdown period. The strike lasted one day, following which the government promised to honour the promise it had made in April 2020 after negotiations with their unions, to pay three months’ salary to the workers during the COVID-19 lockdown. Reports indicated that authorities deployed special forces in the capital, Maseru, who beat, arrested and used rubber bullets against some of the workers.

In a similar incident, on 25th August 2020, hundreds of city vendors staged a protest in the capital’s central business district to demand the release of delayed COVID-19 relief funds which the government had committed to disburse as part of economic measures to cushion small businesses during the lockdown. The protest, for which the police refused to issue a permit, was dispersed by police who lobbed tear gas and fired rubber bullets, while several protesters were arrested for blocking roads with boulders and burning car tyres. Responding to queries about the protesters’ demands, the Ministry of Trade and Industry spokesperson, Lihaelo Nkaota, confirmed that the ministry had just received the funds and was working on transferring the funds to the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP), which would then disburse the funds to affected groups. 

Association

The Constitution, in Article 16, protects the freedom of association, with reservations on the grounds of defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health.

The Constitution, in Article 16, protects the freedom of association, with reservations on the grounds of defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health. Both domestic and international CSOs are generally able to operate without restriction, and many CSOs speak out on key social issues and on matters of corruption. In a landmark moment, after considerable delays, an LGBTI CSO was registered for the first time in 2010. However, trade union organising can be more difficult: public sector workers, who make up a large proportion of the workforce, are not allowed to form unions, and workers in the textile business, the country’s largest formal private sector employer, also experience difficulties in joining unions.

Peaceful Assembly

Article 15 of the Constitution upholds the right of peaceful assembly, subject to limitations on the grounds of defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health.

Article 15 of the Constitution upholds the right of peaceful assembly, subject to limitations on the grounds of defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health. However, in practice, protests have sometimes been violently dispersed, with reports of police brutality against assemblies in election periods. The police used live ammunition to disperse a strike by nurses in 2014, injuring some of those involved. In some parts of the economy, such as mining, union meetings are banned, while spontaneous workforce protests may be chilled by fear of punishments, including sackings.

Expression

Article 14 of the Constitution recognises the freedom of expression, except on the grounds of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health and protecting the rights and reputations of others.

Article 14 of the Constitution recognises the freedom of expression, except on the grounds of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health and protecting the rights and reputations of others. There is no government restriction of internet access, although poor infrastructure and high cost present barriers. There is a lack of clear and rights-based legislation on the freedom of expression. While the practice of independent media making criticisms of the government is well established, the government is sometimes intolerant of criticism and antagonistic towards private media, and the state broadcaster takes a generally pro-government line. The fear of losing government advertising, an important revenue source given the state’s central role in the economy, may also cause private media to self-censor. There have been several reports of government and military interference in the media, and police and judicial harassment and intimidation of journalists. Broadcast media were jammed during the 2014 coup attempt, and in 2015, two journalists fled Lesotho. The editor of the Lesotho Times newspaper survived a shooting in 2016, prior to which he and colleagues were subject to a long campaign of judicial harassment. Defamation and insult remain a criminal offence, and other laws, such as the Sedition Proclamation and Internal Security (General Act) may encourage self-censorship. The Sedition Proclamation in particular bans some forms of criticism of the government, and can lead to charges of seditious libel. The government rejected a 2015 recommendation from the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations to repeal criminal defamation laws. There is no access to information law.