MASERU – In a desperate bid to censor Public Eye, Lesotho PostBank on Tuesday this week said it plans to sue the paper after last week’s exposé in which the bank was accused of fraud by one of its clients. PostBank’s managing director, Molefi Leqhaoe, accused the publication of bias and subjective reporting but would not say in what ways the story was biased and subjective, he could not explain.
Leqhaoe also threatened to sue the bank’s customer Andreas Mateyisi who was swindled by the bank’s teller. Despite Leqhaoe’s spirited attacks on Public Eye, the bank which he heads has since refunded Mateyesi M4 000 and dismissed the teller in question.
Tuesday’s developments came four days after Public Eye reported that the bank was embroiled in fraud allegations after Mateyisi accused it of swindling him out of about M169 000 over a period between 2008 and 2021. Mateyisi officially filed a complaint with the Central Bank of Lesotho last month, alleging that there were suspicious withdrawals from his Lesotho PostBank account. “I suspect that my money amounting to approximately M169 000 has vanished from my account in a fraudulent and corrupt manner,” he said in a letter to the governor of the central bank, Dr Retšelisitsoe Matlanyane. Public Eye was able to obtain the copy of that letter and verified its authenticity.
Instead of dealing with the message, Lesotho PostBank has threatened to deal with the messenger, probably believing that it can censure the flow of information. Leqhaoe on Tuesday threatened to sue Public Eye and Mateyisi if the paper does not retract its article and make a public apology. This is despite the fact that the publication emailed the bank on Thursday last week to get its side of the story before publishing the article.
On Friday last week, the bank also admitted in a statement that it received correspondence from the central bank “on or around June 22, 2021”, stating that Mateyisi alleged that cash was withdrawn from his account from 2008 to 2021 amounting to M169 000. Public Eye wrote to central bank on Wednesday this week saying it regarded Leqhaoe’s utterances as an attack on press freedom. Press freedom is entrenched in the constitution.
Section 14 (1) of the Constitution reads: “Every person shall be entitled to, and (except with his own consent) shall not be hindered in his enjoyment of, freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference (whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and freedom from interference with his correspondence.” When freedom of expression is assured and entrenched, then human rights also thrive, including those of women, minorities and children. An attack on this freedom, human rights defenders have argued over time, must be unconditionally condemned by all freedom-loving and democratic people.
“Kindly be informed that the Bank is carefully studying your request, and will revert once the matter has been finalised,” said CBL’s public relations manager, Ephraim Moremoholo, when responding to Public Eye’s email on Wednesday. In its email, Public Eye has stated that: “At a press conference held at the Lesotho PostBank headquarters in Maseru on Tuesday, 13 July 2021, threatened to sue Public Eye and Mr Mateyisi. And this gets to the heart of the matter.
“Lesotho PostBank, it seems, wants positive news coverage for itself and all the threats against Public Eye and Mr Mateyisi are simply desperate means to achieve that goal. This, we believe, is an attack on press freedom.” It said attacks on journalists around the world took many forms, some of which are sanctioned in law. Legal or quasi-legal mechanisms, it said, included the use of civil or criminal legal actions, covert surveillance, overt censorship and financial threats such as withdrawing advertising, as well as more direct intimidation and threats. On the other hand, it added, legal protection for journalists against those who attack them acted as a strong deterrent.
“Impunity, as we have seen in many countries such as Brazil, Hungary and Poland fuels a vicious cycle of violence, bolstering those who aim to silence public debate and block sensitive information. “We regard the threats against Public Eye and Mr Mateyisi with a great amount of gravity and are contemplating to report the matter to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Lesotho,” Public Eye said. MISA is a regional organisation that monitors, investigates and reports on media freedom violations in the 11 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and has earned itself a reputation for being a credible source of such information.
MISA Lesotho is a local chapter which defends and promotes media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information in Lesotho. According to the Reporters Without Borders, Lesotho drooped Lesotho dropped by two places from 86th to 88th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. This is the worst position Lesotho has ever held in recent years and marked fourth straight year that the country slipped in the ranking that covers 180 economies. Lesotho was 68th in 2018, 78th in 2019 and 86th in 2020.
Reporters Without Borders said authorities in Lesotho had “continued to step up pressure on the media and journalists”. Lesotho was beaten by Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Malawi to occupy fifth position in the Southern African region. “MISA Lesotho finds the following as key factors disturbing free press in this country: threats and intimidations posed to journalists by those who hold positions with power,” MISA Lesotho national director, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, said in a statement to mark World Press Freedom day on May 3, this year.