The Press and Parliament

Mrs Touria Prayag is Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Weekly’ newspaper published by La Sentinelle group.

She’s been writing on a number of subjects of common interest with her often unforgiving pen whenever she spots failings. Some like her style. Others may not. On 4th May, she wrote an editorial ‘Catch me if you can’ in which she exposed what she considered as being weaknesses in the conduct of Parliamentary business. Amongst others, she brought out how ministers dodged answers to questions posed to them, inferring also that the way the Speaker intervened on occasions, such as by limiting the number of supplementary questions, would be helping them get away from having to provide full explanations on the issues being raised by opposition MPs.

She also referred in the article to lateral responses given by certain ministers, which amounted to avoiding giving the answer to the question effectively. She referred to the time-honoured tactics certain ministers employed not to answer questions fully by stating that the matter was under investigation by the ICAC or that they had to query other concerned ministers. As a journalist attending Parliamentary sessions, the view she had formed was that full answers to questions were being apparently deliberately avoided.

The House, as we know, is presided over by the Speaker who is responsible for its proper upkeep and sober conduct of business. Mrs Prayag’s article seemed to imply that the Speaker would be employing certain of her privileges to help government members get away with incomplete answers to embarrassing questions. This, Mrs Prayag believes, was unhelpful towards obtaining clear answers on how public funds were being spent.

It later transpired that she had been asked to apologise to the Speaker for the stand she had taken. True to herself, she asked instead to be informed of what was being reproached to her exactly, believing no doubt that whatever she had written in the article could be verified as to facts and that she had a right to have an opinion on the way business was being conducted in the House. We do not know if the two sides had an opportunity to see to mutual benefit the sensitivities that might have been involved.

The decision of the Speaker, prevailing on Standing Orders of the Assembly, was to interdict her from attending sessions of Parliament over the next four sessions of Parliament. It is clear that the two sides could not see each other’s point of view, which led to this drastic decision by the Speaker. On 15th June, the Media Trust, which looks after relations of the media in Mauritius with the public, stated that it was much shocked that the expression of an opinion by a member of the press had led to her being excluded from following up how the affairs of the nation were being dealt with in Parliament.

It considers that the decision is disproportionate and much too severe with regard to the views expressed in the article. In its opinion, the Media Trust considers that the decision to expel journalists from attending and thus reporting on the proceedings of Parliament is tantamount to denying the public its right to information and that it goes against the current trend in democracies to open up rather the doings of their institutions to the scrutiny of public opinion through journalism. It has therefore respectfully requested the Speaker to reconsider her decision and to privilege dialogue rather than sanction, as it has been imposed in the present case.

There could be two views about the matter. The Speaker may be sending a signal to the media that it must not transgress “expected” limits at the risk of finding itself incapacitated to do its work. The other view is that the public was entitled to be informed in which respects was the opinion article published in ‘Weekly’ offensive towards Parliamentary privileges, thus helping to ward off any unwarranted liberties that members of the media might be taking for granted.

Mauritius has generally functioned as a well-behaved parliamentary democracy. Speakers have ensured that its business is conducted under proper authority and with the appropriate decorum the efficient functioning of the institution calls for. The tradition has been non-confrontational and mutually supportive All Postsbetween the media and the House and in an atmosphere that has not inhibited members of the press making spirited comments about body and other languages employed by parliamentarians to make their points. It would be helpful if intolerance, if any, were set aside quickly and serenity restored between the two parties, as best suits the proper functioning of a democracy.

* Published in print edition on 17 June 2016

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