Mauritius has a long tradition of publishing spanning over more than two centuries. Many newspapers have come and gone, for economic and non-economic reasons. From newspapers, we have moved on to broadcasting, at first via radio stations and, as from the 1960s, with television. The coming of the internet has so expanded the scope for circulating information that its present outreach was unimaginable only a few decades back. All this shows that we have been adapting the platform on which information, news and opinions are set down along with technological progress.
It is not only a matter of the volume of data treated by the various media in a given amount of time. It is also about the speed with which data can be sent round the world in a matter of seconds, no matter where a person may find himself.
These advances show how dynamic and all-encompassing the system has become. This is by no means the end of its evolution. We are likely to step out of it as fast as computing has developed. The capacity of the world’s most complex computers occupying the size of a full room thirty years back is now exceeded by small hand-carried iPods. This massive development in the field of dissemination of information reflects the fundamental fact of freedom of information underlying all genuine democratic setups. Publications in Mauritius have, by and large, acted with responsibility toward the dissemination of information. But the tendency to fly off the tangent cannot be ruled out.
Some in the print media in particular have had scuffles from time to time with respect to biased reporting or having scant regard to objectivity with political parties, both the opposition and the government sides, but more so with governments of certain hues not to their liking. Private citizens have on occasion accused them of not airing their contrarian views sufficiently and widely enough when they have sent them rejoinders to correct biased information concerning them published earlier by editors. There have also been cases of outrageous publishing concerning the private affairs of individuals which, when pointed out by the aggrieved parties, have been rectified in as fine print as possible. If the damage had been done out of sloth and insufficient investigating, that could still have remained within tolerable bounds. But, where this has been done with a deliberate intent to hurt and paint a damaging picture of those who are viewed as political adversaries, clearly the press has crossed the boundaries of decency. There have been cases of misreporting with the potential to arouse communal conflicts when the public interest would have required the newspapers concerned not to ventilate inflammatory material susceptible to cause disaffection among parts of the population until and unless they have the full facts in their hands.
It is not quite necessary to add that this phenomenon of refraining from crossing certain bounds of civilized reporting is not limited to Mauritius. Media groups in other countries openly take political sides, as a way of giving dominance to economic and other lobbies over and above national and even superior international public interests. Have not certain media groups in the US drummed up the inevitability of going to war in the Middle East? Have they considered the national interest first and foremost or of those involved rather as military suppliers? In the modern world, politicians and political parties– let alone private individuals and corporates – use social media extensively to build up their image and influence voters one way or the other. The proliferation of multimedia is but a reflection of the extensive expression of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
A section of the media have shown recently in the UK the extent to which they are prepared to go to grab public attention whether by fair or foul means. They are out not only to unwarrantedly scandalize individuals – the greatest artists and sports performers – but even to change governments and corrupt the police and administration if need be. There is no respect in this outrageous publication of information for the victims. Cheap sensationalism and cronyism matter more than any other value we hold dear to living a decent life. Obviously, securing money, contracts and power happen to be the main motivators behind the growing scale of abuse by the media.
This is where the recent Leveson Inquiry into the behaviour of the media in the UK has come out with the recommendation that the media have to be explicitly regulated with legal underpinnings behind this regulation. This is because it has been proven time and again that self-regulation is not the answer to the frequent excesses of the media. It has not worked and will not work because self-interest primes eventually over everything else. Even though there have been occasional excesses likely to disrupt society on occasion, our media has not gone to the extent some of them have gone in other countries indulging in excesses as a marketing tool or for ulterior political motives. In those places, there have emerged press barons like Rupert Murdoch who have concentrated all efforts on amassing enough power to make or unmake governments at will.
This situation as well as the excessive freedom enjoyed on social media can encourage the media in Mauritius to transgress the limits of decent reporting with possible damaging consequences. On the one side, there are antiquated laws in Mauritius dating back to colonial times which serve to repress the freedom of expression which a vibrant press usually personifies. On the other side, there have been unwarranted invasions of privacy by the media presented in the guise of investigative reporting, with little interest in the overarching ‘public interest’. Sometimes the coverage bias has been so outrageous and one-sided that one is left wondering where all this will lead to if the regular transgressing is allowed to continue.
This is the context in which the Prime Minister has asked his Geoffrey Robertson, QC, a well-established constitutional, criminal and media law practitioner to make recommendations on the regulation of the media in Mauritius.
There are numerous recommendations found in his preliminary report on the subject, covering respect for human rights, the scope of freedom of expression in a democratic interplay, establishing systems for supporting journalistic ethics, the need for private television licensing, the individual’s unimpeded right to privacy, the treatment of political bias in the media, keeping to professional discipline, liberalising media space through a freedom of information act, professional training of journalists, issue of official guidelines to help keep within parameters of good conduct and minimize the outdated recourse to imprisonment of journalists, adoption of modern criminal laws against racial and religious offences by the media, making laws to deal with provisions of the Constitution which tend not to simplify democracy in practice, and the appointment of a statutory media ombudsperson sharing its costs between the government and the media sector, and having real powers of enforcement but more expeditious than law courts in the settlement of disputes.
This is a big agenda. It proposes to set right and simplify what has become complicated and out of place with the evolution of the media world, unmindful of changes in legislations in other places to make way for modernity. One of the axes of his recommendations is that regulation of the media cannot be left in the hands of the government or of the industry itself and that the regulatory body should win its general acceptance rather by being under the authoritative custody of independent judicial institutions. The Prime Minister appears to be open to conviction on most of the issues raised. The public on its part and interested parties have been invited to send their reactions to the proposals by 15 September 2013. This may be a chance for Mauritius to clean up its media stage and to set up the proposed control system as an effective mechanism of good governance and as the very platform on which constructive media activity will be built up in the future.
* Published in print edition on 19 April 2013