Lesotho | Freedom House

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The government of Lesotho in 2010 continued to delay a long-overdue media reform bill that would liberalize the legal framework for both state and independent outlets, as well as for journalists. In September, the cabinet declined to send the bill to a vote in Parliament, returning it to the Ministry of Communications instead.

Lesotho gained independence from Britain in 1966, and the following 30 years featured a number of military coups, annulled elections, and suspensions of constitutional rule. Parliamentary elections in 1998, although judged free and fair by international observers, set off violent protests after the results gave the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party 79 out of 80 constituency seats with just 60.5 percent of the vote. Troops from South Africa and Botswana—under the mandate of the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC)—were summoned to restore order. Following an evaluation of the country’s electoral process,an Interim Political Authority decided that future elections would be supervised by an independent commission and 40 proportionally determined seats would be added to the National Assembly. In the 2002 elections, the LCD captured 57.7 percent of the vote and 77 constituency seats, while the opposition Basotho National Party (BNP) won 21 of the new proportional-representation seats. The elections were carried out with a minimal level of violence.
In late 2006, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili called snap elections after 18 members of the LCD—led by former cabinet minister Tom Thabane—defected to join a new opposition party, the All Basotho Congress (ABC). In the February 2007 voting, the LCD won 61 seats, while the ABC captured 17. Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) allocated 21 of the 40 proportional-representation seats to the LCD-allied National Independent Party (NIP) and 10 to the ABC’s ally, the Lesotho Workers’ Party (LWP). Six other parties were also awarded seats. The elections were declared free and fair by domestic and international observers.
Opposition parties—including the ABC/LWP and the BNP, which had lost 18 seats—disputed the allocations and called a general strike. The strike was halted after the SADC agreed to mediate, but the talks failed to formally resolve the dispute. In 2008, 43 by-elections were held, the results of which were also contested by the opposition. ABC supporters protested outside the office of the IEC, holding several workers hostage until the protest was broken up by police. In 2009, the head SADC mediator, former Botswana president Sir Ketumile Masire, ended his mission in Lesotho, accusing the government of avoiding direct talks with the opposition. The Christian Council of Lesotho took over SADC’s facilitation of the dialogue, but the disputes remained unresolved at the end of 2010.
In April 2009, several gunmen opened fire on Prime Minister Mosisili’s house, but he escaped unharmed.Government officials and some journalists linked the assassination attempt to the ongoing election dispute, calling it a failed coup. Seven people were subsequently arrested, and their trials were pending at the end of 2010.
Drought has plagued the country since 2001, leading to critical food shortages and the dependence of some 450,000 people on food aid. Lesotho is also scarred by an adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of approximately 23 percent, one of the world’s highest. The government announced in 2005 that it would offer free HIV testing to all citizens, the first such program in the world. Roughly half of the country’s 58,000 infected citizens have received antiretroviral treatment.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Lesotho is an electoral democracy. King Letsie III serves as ceremonial head of state. Of the 120 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, 80 are filled through first-past-the-post constituency votes, and 40 through proportional representation. Members serve five-year terms, and the leader of the majority party becomes prime minister. The Senate, the upper house of Parliament, consists of Lesotho’s 22 traditional principal chiefs, who wield considerable authority in rural areas, and 11 other members appointed on the advice of the prime minister. Political violence occasionally occurs, as evidenced by the 2009 assassination attempt on Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
The snap elections held in 2007 resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling LCD and its ally, the NIP. Opposition parties—including the ABC, LWP, and BNP—continue to contest the results of both the 2007 polls and 2008 by-elections, accusing the government of poll rigging, gerrymandering, and unfairly allocating seats. In 2008, the government announced a new digital voter-registration system designed to curtail fraud. In May 2010, the LCD won three rural by-elections, which occurred without incident. The ABC was runner-up in all three contests.
While the government has aggressively prosecuted cases of graft, political corruption remains a problem. A 2010 report by the African Peer Review Mechanism stated that corruption was rife in all sectors of government and public services, and that cronyism was prevalent in state bidding procedures.Lesotho was ranked 78 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press are generally respected, though the government has increasingly restricted the media in recent years. Among other problems, critical media outlets and journalists face heavy libel penalties, and reporters are occasionally harassed or attacked. The government has also been accused of withdrawing advertisements from critical outlets. In October 2010, ABC leader Tom Thabane threatened to shoot a Sunday Express reporter for inquiring about members of his family who were facing rape and assault charges lodged by Thabane’s ex-wife. Independent newspapers and radio stations routinely criticize the government, while state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party. The state controls the country’s largest radio station and its only television station. In September 2010, the cabinet refused to send a long-delayed media reform bill to Parliament for approval and returned the proposal to the Ministry of Communications. The bill, which has been under review for 13 years, would create a public-service broadcaster, eliminate repressive national security statutes, and place the burden of proof on the plaintiff in cases involving slander and libel.The government does not restrict internet access.
Freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country is widely observed. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. Several nongovernmental organizations operate openly. In March 2010, an LCD-proposed bill on public meetings and processions—which requires prior authorization from local chiefs, the police, or other relevant government officials to hold public meetings—passed through the law and public safety committee in Parliament. Following protests from the opposition and civic groups, 21 amendments were made to the bill, including less onerous requirements for gatherings in rural areas and more discretion for judges in fining violators. The revised bill was approved by the legislature in April.While labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the union movement is weak and fragmented, and many employers in the textile sector do not allow union activity.
Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large backlog of cases often leads to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Prisons are dilapidated, severely overcrowded, and lack essential health services; instances of torture and use of excessive force have been reported. An independent ombudsman’s office is tasked with protecting citizens’ rights, but its enforcement powers are weak.
Tensions between the Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to minor incidents of violence in recent years.
The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women’s rights in the areas of property and inheritance. While their husbands are alive, women married under customary law have the status of minors in civil courts and may not enter into binding contracts. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread, but has become less socially acceptable. Women are prevalent in senior political and economic positions in Lesotho: about one in five government ministers are women, and women make up some 50 percent of national legislators and senior managers. A 2005constitutional amendment reserves a third of the seats in municipal councilsfor women.