Several cabinet ministers have denied an advertising ban on Lesotho’s
vibrant weekly newspaper, Public Eye, writes Mzimkhulu Sithetho.

The ministers told the newspaper in separate interviews that the cabinet did not decide to stop ministries and departments from advertising in the paper. They also denied a ban was being implemented in their ministries.

In June 2007, several ministries – though by no means all – stopped advertising in the paper and many withdrew orders already placed, citing instruction from higher up. In many cases, this also affected donor-funded projects hosted by the ministries.

In most cases, internal sources told Public Eye that the instruction was issued verbally, and people asking for a written communication were told they simply wanted to leak the directives to “unfriendly” media.

In an interview with Public Eye, trade minister Popane Lebesa said he wasn’t aware of any cabinet directive to withhold business from the paper, and then added: “But it is quite possible given the way the paper routinely insults Government at whim.

"We have a client and service provider relationship with Public Eye. As a customer we have a right to choose where we source the products in the market. As a supplier, Public Eye has to consider how it handles its customers”.

According to the newspaper, the minister could not cite specific instances of the alleged anti-government bias of the paper. Instead, he said: “I am describing the general trend of that paper. My problem is its loss of objectivity, sometimes even outright lies and insults.”

Tourism minister Lebohang Nts’inyi referred inquiries to the government spokesperson and communications minister, Mothetjoa Metsing. Asked if the advertisement blackout was in practice in her own ministry, Nts’inyi repeated: “I said ask Minister Metsing.
“We have a collective responsibility. I don’t do things on my own. I don’t want to talk because I don’t want to add or subtract anything on the cabinet position.”

Minister of natural resources Monyane Moleleki similarly said he was not aware of any Cabinet decision to impose business restrictions on any media house including Public Eye.

The government spokesperson and communications minister, Mothetjoa Metsing stated categorically that there was no cabinet decision not to support Public Eye through contracts or advertising. He added: “If there are any ministries denying you business, I need concrete evidence so that we can bring the media and the Government together. But when some of these processes are taking place they should be given chance to work. In my own ministry I don’t even get consulted about which media houses to advertise with”.

Meanwhile, the newspaper’s managing editor Bethuel Thai said: “As a commercial newspaper we are in business to serve our clients in the form of readers and advertisers.
They are the ones who tell us what they want and what they do not want. We receive several complaints from individual and institutional clients very often and we always respond to them because we need all our clients; even a client who buys one copy in a month is very important.”

Thai said withholding of Government advertising in the paper was effective for almost a year and if the decision was not that of the Cabinet, whoever made that decision were unfair because they imposed disproportionate and unjustified penalty.

He argued: “Unfortunately this is the first and the only client that never notified the paper of its dissatisfaction regarding our product. It is fair enough for clients to complain if the service or the product they buy is not good. When you start a business you do not do it for yourself but for clients.”