Responsible Media and Responsible Government
Mauritius is facing a situation of growing pains. There is a desire to break away from certain set patterns of behaviour. We should find time and concentration to attend to those pressing matters regarding the future of our economic and social well-being and not spend too much time on out-of-mainstream issues.
On the one hand, Rezistans ek Alternativ, a political party, is challenging in the UN the required classification of Mauritians into communal groups as a pre-requisite for being able to stand for election, as provided for in the Constitution. As such, it is taking on the very idea of communal representation in Parliament by virtue of what is commonly termed as the ‘best loser system’ which currently serves to “correct” election results through the nomination of so-called “best losers” in the elections from among candidates having represented themselves as belonging to specific communal groups. This provision was made 45 years ago to ensure adequate communal representation. Depending on how the matter is finally sorted out, the country stands a chance of breaking away from a system which has been resting for decades on the premise that sectional interests will be protected only if there are sufficient numbers of representatives in Parliament from distinct sections. So far, the classical political parties have appeared to be satisfied with the Constitutional formulation of communal representation in this set-up, having demarcated themselves from each other only in terms of the intensity with which they have asked for proportional representation.
On the other hand, the euro crisis of recent days and the fragility of our traditional external markets have highlighted how vulnerable the economy is due to years of failure to build up a broader-based and better self-sufficient domestic economy. The challenge here is to depart from the prevailing system of quick-fixes (such as interest rate reduction and currency depreciation) in terms of policy-making. We should instead identify and implement another more technologically upgraded and diversified platform of local production accompanied by a lesser concentration of entrepreneurship to give ourselves a chance in the emerging global economic competition. Our deeper integration with the world economy has been eluding us for too long. Our scarce resources are not being put to their optimal use. Our infrastructural complications have got messier by the years without an affirmative and comprehensive solution in view. Overcoming all of this will require considerable care and attention from the government and a rallying together of national “best efforts” in every field.
If we manage to strike new ground, things will be done quite differently from the way they have been. The new developments that will emerge out of this process will call for all our energies to cultivate, manage and sustain our way forward. This is a worthwhile pursuit which will pay off rich dividends and re-position the economy and society for better things to do. We have to prioritize, recalling that nothing is gained by reanimating past animosities.
Yet, what do we see dominating the scene these days? A quarrel has erupted between the government and La Sentinelle, a local media group. It has become the major chapter of our preoccupation for weeks now. The government has claimed that this media group has been adopting an unduly antagonistic attitude towards it before and after the general elections and that it is continuing along the same lines following the failed alliance between Labour and the MMM. In the last issue of Mauritius Times, we took the principled stand that, however strongly the government felt itself opposed to the anti-Labour and biased stands adopted by this media group, there are other means to deal with the problem rather than taking steps which could expose it to offending Constitutional provisions regarding freedom of expression. Among these steps, one is to repudiate deliberate misinformation published or broadcast by the media by sending in rejoinders to establish facts correctly. One can also sue the newspaper or its other organs for repeated and deliberate misrepresentations of facts to the prejudice of the government. One can understand the frustration of a party in power once damage to its standing and reputation has already been done by publication which it considers to be completely prejudicial to it. Unfortunately, the law cannot overstep itself and society allows for measured reactions only to get over offences committed.
There is a general tendency among the social protagonists, including the press, to take undue liberties in the matter of representing or misrepresenting facts. Freedom of expression does not mean licentiousness. A self-respecting institution goes on to fulfil its proper role. It does not intrude into roles it has not given itself. Thus, in the best of circumstances, one would expect a newspaper to keep itself within parameters of decent behaviour of broadcasting news and opinions founded on facts. If it has overdone or overstepped its limits, it will be expected to rectify at the first opportunity and without being urged by the offended party to do so. This culture has been lacking in our midst, unfortunately. In the event of serial misinformation being published, one would be justified to ask questions about any hidden agenda behind this kind of situation. Actually, many who are and have been in the public services can testify to deliberate and factual misrepresentation of which they have been victims without as much as an apology from the concerned media. Even when one succeeds to put in a word to get the misrepresentation of facts rectified, certain members of the media will still unashamedly have the final word by means of a subtly worded editorial note beside the point in question. Due to this process, many have had their public images unjustly sullied by such dubious practices. When the courts do deliver their answers in favour of the victims, the harm has already been done for years and there is little recourse, if any, the victimised party can have to repair the original damage done.
Being generally perceived as the stronger of the two parties in contention in this matter of La Sentinelle and liable to be subjected also to offensive communal innuendoes from editors and past editors, the government finds itself hitting against the presumption that it would be using its superior position to get the paper down. Because of this kind of perception, there is no guarantee that a government will win its case in an arm-wrestling match against the media. Besides, a government has a series of other responsibilities and it would be futile in this context to allow itself to be distracted, and the people together with it, in a struggle with uncertain finality. Even if it can resort to legal redress, this process consumes a lot of time and energy and this may not be the best way to govern the country. On the other hand, in a truly democratic society, one cannot expect any broadcaster of information to trespass established norms of responsible behaviour.
Past attempts to discipline the media through various arrangements have been unsuccessful. Occasionally, the institution has failed to address the issue for which it has been set up, breaking up when pressed from inside to stand up for causes falling outside its precincts but within the hidden agenda of those promoting such causes. People speaking on the broadcast media have not always acted fairly; quite a few have taken undue advantage to hit below the belt. Yet, it is a fundamental canon of any freedom that it has no meaning without appropriate controls being constantly exerted on its potential to cause prejudice or damage the reputation of innocent parties beyond repair. There is nothing like absolute freedom if the media wants to be classified as a professional category.
It is therefore desirable to establish with the urgency it calls for a highly professional Press Council to govern the liberty with which the Constitutional freedom of expression is enjoyed by the media. Other than being constituted absolutely independently, the Press Council must be empowered to take actions that will keep the media to its true role of informing, educating and entertaining within established bounds of decency. As a substantive watchdog, it should be capable of receiving complaints with diligence and acting to get the offending parties to publish without delay unambiguous rectifications of misrepresented facts, thus gaining time over unduly protracted legal processes. Our media will be operating several notches higher if we manage to put an end to the law of the jungle by this process. Hopefully, this institution will become an effective regulator and it will spare us the wasting of our national focus on issues which should not be among our major preoccupations at this time.