Police brutality a continuing cause for concern in Lesotho
The Kingdom of Lesotho held general elections on 7th October 2022, in which more than 50 political parties ran for office. Observers from the AU, SADC and EU were present, and no reports of violence were reported during the elections. Nevertheless, the EU observation mission questioned the accuracy of the voters roll as some voters were turned away from the polls, there were complaints of data mistakes, and it was possible that names of deceased persons were put on the voters roll. The SADC highlighted the objections over the delay in issuing the final voters roll and shared similar worries concerning the voters list. Nonetheless, the EU did observe that election day was mostly calm, well-planne and professionally run.
In separate developments, police brutality in Lesotho has been in the limelight over the past few years and 2021-2022 were no different. Cases of violence and ill-treatment of prisoners, detainees, protesters and the general population, in several cases leading to death, continued to be documented in the country.
Tseliso Sekonyela who was detained on 2nd September 2021 by police from Maseru's Thetsane Police Station on suspicion of liquor theft passed away while in police custody just two days after his detention. Sekonyela had informed his mother that he had been beaten by police in detention. Napo Mafaesa, a 34-year-old attorney, was detained on 13th January 2022, by officers of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service on suspicion of hiding a client's weapons. Police officers allegedly tortured him while trying to get a "confession" from him, even though he insisted he knew nothing about the gun. Mafaesa was released the following morning.
According to Afrobarometer, the percentage of Lesotho citizens who do not trust the police has risen to 20 percentage points since 2017.
Increasing cases of harassment of journalists in Lesotho
In November 2021, MISA reported an increase in assault and intimidation against journalists throughout 2021. During the year, it was a frequent practice for members of security agencies and political parties to forcibly detain, harass, assault and torture journalists, especially in the weeks before the National Assembly election.
#Lesotho radio journalist Lebese Molati from @357fm is arrested and allegedly assaulted by police over missing police guns story. Station is later suspended for not airing an apology reports @pressfreedom: https://t.co/ZWKSoDbJU8 @PolokoMokhele_ @NewMisa_Lesotho @IFJAfrica— IFEX (@IFEX) December 16, 2021
On 14th November 2021, Lebese Molati of 357FM was apprehended and questioned by the Pitso Ground and Maseru Central police in relation to his purported comments on 357FM regarding stolen guns at the Mafeteng Police Station and linking the event to a particular senior police official. Molati informed MISA Lesotho that he was tortured and nearly killed by the police while being interrogated, while being compelled to provide the location of a certain police officer who he had previously interviewed, and who was on the run and being sought by the police. He was not officially charged and later released from police custody.
According to a tweet from the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) and a media source, authorities thereafter withdrew 357 FM's broadcasting license for allegedly failing to follow a direction from its Broadcasting Disputes and Resolution Panel. According to the statement and media reports, the panel had instructed the station to apologise to Professor Nqosa Mahao, the opposition Basotho Action Party (BAP) leader, who had accused the station of engaging in a campaign of character assassination.
In another incident, on 17th November 2021, police raided the office of People's Choice FM (PCFM), another privately owned radio station in Maseru, and questioned presenter Teboho Ratalane and some of the station's management about a report about the missing police guns. However, no one was detained
Civil Society Calls for Freedom of Expression Constitutional Amendments
In April 2022, MISA, in partnership with Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA), lobbied parliament to amend section 14 of the Constitution of Lesotho to include rights and freedoms of online and digital users. According to MISA, the constitutional provision which guarantees the freedom of expression and opinion does not necessarily cover the rights of online users.
Parliament commended for adopting National Media Policy
In November 2021, Parliament adopted the long-awaited National Media Policy which, amongst other things, is intended to comply with Lesotho’s international commitments, protect the rights of all citizens to seek, receive and impart information or ideas and develop stronger constitutional and legal safeguards governing the media sector, while eliminating provisions that unnecessarily restrict media freedom. MISA-Lesotho also called for the implementation of other proposed Media Reforms - pieces of legislation that have laid dormant for more than 20 years.
Police brutality and widespread impunity remains a concern in Lesotho
Lesotho's police continued to be in the spotlight over police brutality against the population and also against protesters. On 16th June 2022, they opened fire on students at the National University of Lesotho who were protesting a reduction in their living stipend even though they did not constitute a threat right away. Kopano Francis Mokutoane, a student, was murdered by gunfire, and several others were also hurt. Several police officers were placed on administrative leave for using disproportionate and illegal force.