- A recently launched Lesotho tabloid newspaper finds itself in trouble after running a front page story, falsely claiming that the grand old man of Lesotho's independent press, Bethuel Thai, was selling his 'Public Eye' newspaper. Media organisations are mediating the new round of media infighting in the country.
In the 3 to 9 August edition of the newly-established English-language tabloid newspaper 'Our Times', a front page article entitled, "Thai sells 'Public Eye'" reported that the managing editor of 'Public Eye' sold "Public Eye" to a South African company because he and his wife intended to go into the printing press business.
The front page story, according to Mr Thai, had now base in reality. It however started an avalanche of rumours and problems for Mr Thai's successful weekly English-language quality tabloid newspaper. Mr Thai is among the most profiled journalists and media players in Lesotho since he started 'Public Eye' on his kitchen table back in 1997. Costs following the false sales news story thus soon ran high for Mr Thai's publication.
Thus, on Friday (6 August), 'Our Times', which is owned by a company registered as Soul to Soul, was served with a summons by local law firm Nthethe and Company, on behalf of Voice Multimedia, publishers of the weekly 'Public Eye'. Mr Thai is also the director of Voice Multimedia.
The law firm, acting on behalf of 'Public Eye' and Voice Multimedia, is demanding about 139,000 maloti (approximately US$ 23,000) in damages for defamation and "injury to business status and reputation", as a result of which 'Our Times' faces possible closure. 'Our Times' was launched less than one month ago.
In a letter served to 'Our Times' reporter Moeti Thelejane, the article's author, and 'Our Times' editor Peter Potjo Potjo, 'Public Eye' lawyers claimed that "[Our] clients have had to incur huge amounts of money running helter skelter, seeking legal advice, running advertisements, telephoning business associates and clients in an attempt to counteract the effects of your false story."
The letter indicated that the sum demanded should be paid within seven working days or 'Our Times' could expect legal action. It also stated that 'Our Times' had the option of publishing a retraction of the article and paying 29,094 maloti (approximately US$ 4,800), which according to 'Public Eye' lawyers represented the cost incurred by the tabloid in radio slots and other activities aimed at countering the 'Our Times' report.
According to the 'Our Times' editor, Mr Potjo Potjo, his, being a newly-established paper, does not have the sum demanded and could face possible closure if forced to pay. The editor is now approaching the Lesotho Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Lesotho) for assistance in the matter.
MISA, the regional media watchdog organisation, today in a statement said that its Lesotho Chapter meanwhile has attempted to mediate in the matter. 'Public Eye' managing editor Bethuel Thai had "indicated that he was not seeking to shut down 'Our Times', but that he wanted 'Our Times' to publish a retraction, purely for business reasons."
MISA-Lesotho said it had urged Mr Thai to refrain from any legal action against the new publication. The managing editor has indicated that should 'Our Times' publish a retraction, no action would be taken against the publication. The 'Our Times' editorial team has indicated that they would publish such a retraction.
Being a small and poor country, Lesotho has a vibrant environment of free and independent media, which is nevertheless marked by strong competition and many conflicts. MISA-Lesotho, which currently enjoys the position as a neutral mediator, often has been the core of conflicts.
During the last year, MISA-Lesotho was ridden by scandals that went far in undermining the Institutes credibility. Ex-MISA-Lesotho chairman Nthakeng Selinyane, who lost his chairmanship in last year's annual general meeting in Maseru, took three media houses to task for reporting on his suspected embezzlement of maloti 13,000 (euro 1,600) from MISA coffers.
Mr Thai in an article published in 'Public Eye' in April this year, strongly criticised MISA-Lesotho (which is also called MILES), calling the institute "the number one enemy" of press freedom in Lesotho. He made these remarks in an article about the scandals surrounding Mr Selinyane and the culture of suing independent media.
The April 2004 article in 'Public Eye' warned that the private media in Lesotho were "perceived as a 'get-rich-quick scheme' for people who are desperate for the fast buck." 'Public Eye' reporter Moeti Thelejane found that it was becoming too easy to sue a Basotho newspaper for large amounts and that this was a danger for press freedom in the country.
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