Fake news, Patriotism and Spin doctoring

The test of patriotism must also be applied to government policies and style of governance. Is it patriotic to favour nepotism and appoint the coterie or the party faithful to key and cushy government posts

By Mrinal Roy

There was a doctored blitzkrieg and a contrived hullabaloo on MBC-TV recently about fake news. A blatantly obvious and condemnable case of fake news relating to Navin Ramgoolam, who is in India for Covid-19 treatment, was slyly used to pillory fake news.

This begs some key questions. Who decides what is fake news? Is daily spin doctoring on national TV at public expense not an insidious form of fake news? Is this sudden hype about purported fake news not a stratagem to arbitrarily crack down on criticisms or dissenting opinions? Is the intent a restriction of our sacrosanct democratic space and fundamental right of opinion and expression? In a world marked by polarized and partisan political allegiances mainstream media and state TV channels promote their own biased editorial policies and also give their own spin to news. This further muddles what really constitutes fake news.

Fake News. Pic – Michigan State University

Masking the truth

Is the abject manipulation of information to mask the truth about so many unanswered questions and interrogations on questionable policies and decisions in the country including the current rising Covid-19 related death toll not fake news? Is the absence of transparency surrounding the terms and conditions tens of billions of Rupees advanced from the fund of Rs 80 billion, drawn from the country’s foreign exchange reserves to bail out distressed companies including some of the biggest conglomerates of the country and the intent to hide the truth not a brand of fake news? The list could go on and on given the entrenched culture of opacity which is the hallmark of governance in the country.

Tweaking fundamental rules

The following example is relevant to the situation currently prevailing in Mauritius. In the United Kingdom the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was asked for informed advice on the vaccination of children aged 12 to 15 years. The JCVI is an independent expert advisory committee that advises UK health departments on immunisation and makes recommendations concerning vaccine safety.

After careful evaluation of the pros and cons, the JCVI committee advised earlier this month that ‘the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms but acknowledges that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms. The margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12- to 15-year-old children at this time. As longer-term data on potential adverse reactions accrue, greater certainty may allow for a reconsideration of the benefits and harms. Such data may not be available for several months.’

Vaccine scientists know that despite continuous research and diligently compiled and assessed data, quite a few aspects of the epidemiology of Covid-19 and coronavirus vaccines are still unknown.

For example, the JCVI has found out after reviewing in collaboration with experts from overseas updated evidence relating to the epidemiology of Covid-19 in the UK and safety data related to myocarditis following Covid vaccination in the UK, US and Canada that there is increasingly robust evidence of an association between vaccination with mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and myocarditis. There is therefore an imperative need to advance with extreme caution.

Against such a backdrop, the chief medical officers from the four countries of the UK decided this week to set aside the advice of the JCVI and offer children aged 12 to 15 years a first dose of Pfizer vaccine as soon as possible. Parental consent will be needed for vaccinations, but children can overrule parents who do not want them to get the vaccine dose if deemed “competent”. A second injection will be potentially given once more evidence is gathered, not before the spring term at the earliest. This irresponsible tweaking of basic rules flouting parental consent to avert the need for lockdowns in the winter risk stoking conflicts within families and is a licence for societal mayhem.

Children on the line

According to press reports, the UK PM Boris Johnson is dead set against any lockdown in the new blueprint for managing Covid-19 during winter. The offer of coronavirus vaccines to children aged 12 to 15 years is based on the gamble that expanded vaccination can avert the need for lockdowns in the winter. How can the health of young children and well-established rules of parental oversight be wantonly staked in the name of political expediency? Such a gamble is akin to blindly groping in the dark amid uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms to the children and is fraught with serious risks.

Once a controversial decision has been taken by government, spin doctoring by the partisan media and state TV have a field day extolling or decrying government. Instead of a rational discussion on policy, the whole debate is derailed by partisan rhetoric. The only beacon of hope remains independent news channels who doggedly investigate to sort the wheat from the chaff to expose the truth.

As we survey world or local news in a context of spin doctoring and partisan propaganda, it is more and more evident that the distinction between fake and doctored news is very blurred. Furthermore, despite the findings of independent investigations, the truth about, for example, whether Covid-19 originated in a lab or not and so many questions regarding the array of scandals and costly blunders which have rocked the country over the last decade remain unanswered and buried.

Test of patriotism

The government has also levelled accusations of unpatriotic comments against the media. In order to be credible, it is important that journalists are measured and constructive in their criticisms. However, how can it be unpatriotic to flag that if the government does not urgently take robust actions to drastically contain the rampant spread of Covid-19 in the country and cut down the daily tally of new cases of infection, fully vaccinated tourists entering the country with no restrictions as from 1 October run the risk of being infected? This could adversely affect the classification of Mauritius as a Covid-safe tourist destination and the inflow of tourists as well as the prospects of the tourism sector. Tourism is such an important sector of the economy that every precaution must be taken to ensure that tourists are Covid safe and healthy during their stay in the country.

 

The test of patriotism must however also be applied to government policies and style of governance. Is it patriotic to favour nepotism and appoint the coterie or the party faithful to key and cushy government posts such as ambassadors and at the head of important institutions and state-owned companies? Is it patriotic to squander billions of Rupees of public funds owing to misguided government decisions such as the termination of the Betamax contract or the BAI debacle which backfired?

Is it patriotic that there is no transparency and accountability as to why the costly Rs 16 billion Safe City project could not provide key deliverables such as crucial video footage to help elucidate the ongoing investigation into the suspect death of a political activist? Is it patriotic that criminal investigations into various alleged wrongdoings by Ministers and allegations of corruption and bribery by ‘members of the Mauritian administration and others’ in the 2014 Rs 4.3 billion CEB Saint Louis Power Plant Redevelopment Project remain stalled for so long? Is it patriotic that public spending does not abide by the most rigorous benchmarks of accountability and transparency? This list could go on and on.

This week the US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was asked to testify and respond to criticisms before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US government actions are under constant scrutiny and those responsible are answerable and held accountable. This is a far cry from the level of governance, transparency and accountability prevailing in Mauritius.

Accountable politicians

Is it not high time to put in place such a system of accountability in the country whereby Ministers are questioned on their policies and actions in a structured parliamentary forum to ensure that they meet the test of incisive appraisal and expert scrutiny?

We need to establish a new order which ensures that all politicians are accountable.

Fake news and spin doctoring mask and manipulate the truth and can hardly be considered patriotic. They spin and thrive on lies and untruths and need to be scuttled forthwith for the good of people and country.


* Published in print edition on 17 September 2021

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