Free speech, but…

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Stifling free speech should be a matter of great concern to one and all. Pic – Getty Images

In the series of international days and weeks that are celebrated all year round, the one that has hogged headlines most in the media recently is freedom of the press.

Press freedom is the aim of all media outlets across the world and is crucial to countries endowed with modern institutions. After the highest office of the presidency or prime ministership, the executive and the judiciary, the press ranks as the Fourth Estate, and has the duty to inform the public and analyse all the policies that are undertaken by the authorities to further progress in all domains and improve living conditions for all. In the process, the press is expected to denounce wrongdoings, bureaucratic malfunctions and shady dealings of politicians who are elected by the public to run the country. That the media should have all the freedom to do so is unquestionable.

On the other hand, the aim of the political class is to win elections, rule the country and hold on to power as long as possible. They are perfectly aware of the power of the media to influence public opinion, especially when they have a few skeletons in the cupboard. Hence the tug-of-war between the authorities and the press which the public is witness to. Retaliation in dictatorial and neo-fascist military-backed regimes may range from outright kidnapping, torture and killing of press reporters, imprisonment without trial under authoritarian governments to harassment, intimidation, litigations and attempts to financially ruin targeted media outlets even in full-fledged democracies and their half-baked models. It is not a smooth ride for all the stakeholders concerned. One recent example is the police arrest of an editorialist whose portrayal of the French president as a modern Hitler (which was clearly not appropriate) was displayed in posters carried by protesters in mass demonstrations against the French government’s pensions overhaul plan.

Modern politics rests upon a battle of communication; political campaigns involve huge funds, trumpets, a colourful festive atmosphere. The role of the President or Prime Minister has evolved from being an aloof administrator of public affairs to that of a more complex role in a nanny state, and the incumbents have to polish their image by remaining in the limelight, smiling and waving at crowds, shaking hands, sympathizing with mourners, congratulating winners, hugging and kissing folks around.

Similarly the media has expanded its mandate to not only fulfil its duty to inform and enlighten the public on key topics, but regrettably in some cases to that of defending the interests of financial sponsors, and promoting the ideology they subscribe to. The public is fully aware of this phenomenon – that of the media not being a monolithic block seeking to establish transparency, justice and truth in all matters. It is therefore not a passive consumer of a flow of information dished out by media of all hues.

In an era of digital communications, free speech should not remain the monopoly of the media or self-proclaimed spokespersons of various groups. If, in some cases, political leaders try to silence the press, in others the media can be seen to be selective in giving a platform to ideas that do not fall in line with their own ideology. In small societies where nerves are quickly frayed, the media just like the political class may respond negatively to public criticism of their opinions, resort to retaliatory response by muzzling opinion makers and even indulge in mudslinging and smearing tactics. Such reprehensible acts do not escape the notice of the public. That is why some major media outlets have lost an enormous amount of the credibility they had enjoyed for decades.

A shameful example of a breach of free speech is the role played by mainstream French press, both public and private radios and television channels, which refused to give a platform to politicians, thinkers, economists, bright intellectuals who might have ruined the chances of re-election of the outgoing president in 2022. Another glaring example is the submission of mainstream western media to the stance taken by their respective governments in covering the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The war-mongering posture has dragged the world economy into recession and is impacting the lives of billions of people. Stifling free speech should be a matter of great concern to one and all.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 12 May 2023

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