When Abel Chapatarongo, Shakeman Mugari and Caswell Tlali resigned from their jobs at the Lesotho Times to set up their own paper, their former employer wasn’t happy. To the journalists’ disbelief, he managed to obtain a High Court order prohibiting them from practicing journalism for 12 months. After months of delays, in October 2014 the Lesotho Court of Appeal finally overturned the High Court judgment. A year on, Abel describes the impact the case had on him and his family, the vital support the journalists had from MLDI and their ambitions for their new weekly paper, thepost.
My colleagues and I were devastated following the judgment. We never saw it coming, as we erroneously thought that no judge would impose such a harsh order. I feel those 12 months were really stolen from us. The financial loss we suffered was devastating. As a family we had to dip into the money I had saved to start thepost newspaper. I believe this was my former employer’s strategy, to ensure we exhaust the little funds we had through litigation and paralyse the project we had planned to start. We soon began running out of money for daily expenses, rentals and school fees for my son. Friends and relatives rallied behind us.
Our case generated a lot of public interest. The issue of what constitutes unfair competition was virgin territory for Lesotho’s legal system, so academics and lawyers were keen to see how the judge would handle the matter. After we lost in the High Court, the Lesotho Times carried a story headlined ‘Zim journalists banned from working in Lesotho’. The story triggered a bit of outrage, with people stopping us on the streets and telling us that we should fight and get the judgement overturned. They felt that if left unchallenged, it would set a very dangerous precedent for Basotho [people of Lesotho].
The support from MLDI came when we felt sapped emotionally. We had lost in the High Court but were convinced that a higher court would reach a different verdict. We therefore wanted to take the matter to the Lesotho Court of Appeal. The challenge was that we had run out of funds. If we had not received support from MLDI, we certainly would have failed to pay the lawyers to lodge the appeal in the Court of Appeal.
Three weeks after the Court of Appeal overturned the case, we launched thepost on 13 November. The biggest challenge for Lesotho’s media is that it operates in a deeply polarised political environment. Most of the privately owned newspapers tend to back the opposition parties. Privately owned radio stations are sharply divided between the government and opposing parties. In such an environment, journalistic principles of balance and fairness are often thrown out. thepost has adopted a middle-of-the-road approach. We strive to be a fair and balanced newspaper which speaks to both sides and which readers can trust.
The delays in our case opened our eyes to the plight of thousands of Basotho whose cases have been pending in court for many years. Lesotho’s judiciary is struggling to deal with a massive backlog of cases, some dating from as far back as 10 years ago. thepost has begun running stories on delayed judgments to highlight this issue and these have triggered a lot of debate in Lesotho. We believe there is need to hold everyone in power, including High Court judges, to account.
My hope is to see thepost newspaper become an important reference point for Lesotho. We want to build it into a credible newspaper that truly plays its watchdog role, exposing excesses wherever they are found. Eventually we plan to start a daily newspaper. Currently Lesotho stands out as among the few countries in Africa without a daily paper – we need to correct this. In the meantime, based on our sales and advertising revenue, it seems thepost has been accepted by the market. It has been an exciting year.
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