To publish or not to publish

l’express newspaper published in its edition of Saturday last a few photographs purporting to show the Prime Minister at a private reception that would have taken place in June this year. To whet the appetite, it announced that more photographs will feature in the following day’s edition, Sunday 17th August. The pictures show the PM engaged in some musical/dancing activity in the company of a couple of other persons, one of whom is portrayed by l’express as being a businesswoman having benefited from some exclusive contracts from the public domain. The newspaper stated that she has shot up to inexplicably become a multi-millionaire within a short space of time.

In its Sunday edition, l’express has stated that it is of the view that, while people’s private lives should be respected, i.e., not advertised in newspapers, the public interest transcends respect for privacy where it is suspected that there is a presumption of unlawful activity taking place such as when a relationship is believed to have caused a questionable enrichment. It explains the publication of the photographs by reference to the judgement given by a court in London in the case of a child begotten by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, through an extra-conjugal relationship, quoting from the judgement to the effect that this was a “public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office”.

Nowhere is it established in the articles of l’express in this connection that the personal enrichment of the businesswoman was the consequence of her having obtained favours from the PM. It would have made sense if the newspaper had gone on to prove that the alleged enrichment was the consequence of the main protagonists involved in the private reception having conspired against the public interest to unlawfully secure contracts resulting in the said enrichment. It is not enough to make inferences or insinuations by observing the sudden enrichment of that person, that laws, rules and regulations would have been flouted in the process.

We do not know if the newspaper has additional information on its hands to be able to prove in front of a court that what it has been implying about the relationship and its bearing on the sudden enrichment can be established beyond reasonable doubt. It may or it may not have it. Since the reader is left in doubt on this aspect or since the paper leaves it to the reader’s imagination to trust its version of things, this publication would finally rest only on the conviction of the publishers as to what they believe their own version of the truth to be.

The l’express newspaper has made no secret of the recriminations it has against the government – and the PM in particular – for not sending to it paid government publicity and for not carrying the newspaper on Air Mauritius flights along with other newspapers. It is not for us to dwell on the merits or demerits of the grudge the newspaper has against the government and the PM in this regard. However, it has grievance enough to portray the government and its PM in unfavourable light. The tension between the two sides should not be difficult to sense from the further statement made by the newspaper after last Sunday’s publication that several ‘strong men’ would have called at newspaper stalls even as the Sunday edition containing the new series of photographs was to be sold to the public to buy them out in bulk from the newspaper vendors. Understand: at the behest of someone powerful enough to command those men. In other words, a repressive system was used to prevent the edition containing the additional photographs from going public.

It is clear that by publishing the pictures the newspaper is taunting those whose pictures it has published to go to court if they take an objection thereto. This also means that while it will stick to its version of ill-gotten wealth by distorting systems for awarding public contracts, it is for those affected by the publications to go to court and establish that the newspaper’s allegations are untrue. It is therefore most probably acting on the presumption that the concerned persons will not dare go to court since the court is an open forum in which embarrassing questions can be put to the objectors to the publication. Clearly, this matter is multi-dimensional and risks are involved – including damage to the private standing of the individuals whose pictures have been displayed.

When we look at the story from various angles, we come to the consideration as to what journalistic ethics should stand for. Should the journalist invade the intimate privacy of persons made vulnerable by virtue of the public office they hold? Should the journalist not be more straightforward rather and come up with arguments cast in iron to support the core case it holds against the protagonists at the reception, notably that they would have abused of office to get into unlawful wealth accumulation? Will the newspaper, if it is convinced that the public interest has suffered in this case, not stop at this case alone but come up instead with proofs of abuse by the various political parties from the private sector having secured unwarranted benefits to the detriment of the public interest through their connections with the leaders down the years?

Given the complexity of the various issues, we remain to be convinced that the publication of the pictures was an unbiased reporting intended solely to defend the public interest. Defence of the public interest should not restrict itself to selective cases. It should go out and hit targets at random, no matter who the beneficiaries of the enrichment might be. If there were dispassion enough and no visceral antipathy towards specific persons, there would have been a case to go for it, but not if the hunt is selective.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2014

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