“Who said anyone is expecting media groups to be cheerleaders as they are when the MMM is in power?… 

Interview: Nita Deerpalsing

… for goodness sake, all we can and should legitimately expect is basic norms of professionalism, fair treatment and the responsibility and maturity”

* “What came out of the media overkill is not Mr Choonee’s at best confused speech, but the hidden agenda of some media groups”

* “When you’re in a Labour Party-led government, it’s always a bad sign if l’express in particular is pumping you! …”

Newspaper scribes and private radios have had a field day these last few weeks what with one government minister jumping from one controversy to the other within the relatively short period of time after the general election whilst another minister, apparently not to be outsmarted, has taken to shooting down anybody who would defy his summons. The government team seems to be taking a longer than expected time to really get cracking. Why is that so? Nita Deerpalsing says this is not really the case since the government is doing the work it has to do in order to deliver on the programme. It’s some media groups “which are desperately trying to fabricate cracks and splits and what not” and to give the impression that things are not quite right with the current government. “The fact is that some media pundits had bet their bottom dollar on a victory of the MMM in the last general elections. They have been completely “à côté de la plaque” as far as the choice of the people is concerned and this “miscalculation” still rankles”…

Mauritius Times: The Prime Minister was prompt to distance himself from what Minister Choonee would have said or meant to convey to his audience at d’Epinay. He has since been criticized for having taken a week to adopt a diametrically opposite stand, coming back from his French sojourn. Would you say that’s unfair criticism?

Nita Deerpalsing: Have you seen the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’? There’s the scene where Robin Williams asks his students to walk about freely at their own pace. Soon enough most of the students are marching at the same rhythm. What this shows is that the pressure to conform to “conventional norms” is enormous and in our society this is even more the case. While some of the ministers may succumb to the pressure of adjusting to “conventional norms”, we have on the contrary, a Prime Minister who is anything but a follower of “conventional norms”. Anyone who has worked a little bit with him knows that Dr Navin Ramgoolam is a cosmopolitan citizen at heart and that he is anything but tribal in the concept of his own identity. And that his wish and his vision for a modern Mauritius where people and stakeholders of the nation engage with each other in a mature and civilized manner, are genuine. I wish some of his ministers, particularly those who have just joined the Labour Party, would spend time to observe and learn from him and take even just a bit of inspiration from him instead of rushing like fools to whatever platform is offered to them and make confused, ridiculous speeches and statements which add absolutely nothing to the emancipation of the nation.

In some media quarters, they are talking about the PM taking an opposite stand or whatever. Yet the facts speak for themselves. Isn’t this the same Dr Ramgoolam who nominated a non-Indo Mauritian at the Head of Civil Service and Secretary to Cabinet – Mr Yat Sin? Isn’t this the same PM who replaced an Indo-Mauritian Commissioner of Police by Mr Feillafe? Is it not the same PM who appointed Mr Rosalie as Secretary for Home Affairs? And all this despite major dissenting views in his own party? So I’d say please cut him some slack and get on with real issues instead of the infantilizing and unproductive cynicism that has been on show in some parts of the media for the last week or so.

In any case, the PM knows ten times, a thousand times more information than any of us, and he needs to act on the basis of all the information he has, for the long term benefit of the country. I don’t think any sensible Mauritian would expect him to act on the basis of the personal agenda of some media people who are bent on an endless hunt for the slightest crack in which they could sink their teeth.

By the way, have you noticed that even before the elections, there has been a “diabolisation systématique” of Dr Ramgoolam’s government? When the Labour Party was in alliance with the MMM, that part of the media were the cheerleaders of government. When the MSM was in alliance with the MMM, it was exactly the same cheerleading role. But when the MMM is outside power, there is a completely different media-political power relationship, characterized mostly by the sense of constant hounding of prey until something gives.

* It is to be expected that interest groups within the government alliance itself and from among the different components of the nation should come along, calling for their pound of flesh for having been instrumental to bring the government to power. One could then argue that the Minister of Culture was only jockeying for his group’s share over competing interests at d’Epinay?

Sadly, our national fabric sometimes looks like a collection of communities each with their own imagined historical or present grievances. There’s an unending, unhealthy competition as to which group can claim to be most aggrieved and therefore more deserving of government’s attention. Benedict Anderson, a renowned socio-anthropologist who authored the book “Imagined Communities” argued that communities distinguish themselves not by the falsity or genuineness of their social claims, but by the style in which these are imagined.

There are a number of important questions we should be asking ourselves. Are we perhaps insidiously moving away from a liberal democracy based on individual rights to a democracy based on group rights? Or are we a hybrid of both concepts? And if we are, is that good or bad? Our Constitution guarantees INDIVIDUAL equal rights with a sprinkle of group rights in the form of the Best Loser system. Many scholars and thinkers in multicultural countries like Canada, have been grappling with the concepts of individual rights versus group rights in a liberal democracy. What are the implications on the way our Constitution is written? I don’t know but surely we should be having some intelligent, mature conversations, debates about this instead of all the media-induced indiscriminate negativity which destroys rather than add value to our society.

Take the recent drum-beating front page article of l’express dimanche on castes. What did it bring other than say these things exist in parts of our society? Why the lopsidedness in the selective list of names printed? Why weren’t the names of Megh Pillay, Serge Petit, Osman Mohamed, etc., not printed? What insidious message were they trying to push through?

Whatever their objective was, I can tell you that it aroused furore amongst members of many Hindu groups which in turn induced very primal reactions in some quarters. Was that helpful? Did that create value? These people, sitting in their ivory towers, have no idea how the population out there think and react. They comfort themselves with the handful of people – and always the same – who write blogs and they pompously and misguidedly think they have a touch on the pulse of the country. And in this they are totally delusional.

Instead of these hollow, rabble-rousing articles, it would be more useful to have profound conversations and interviews with people like Pere Filip Fanchette. Who is not a cheerleader of the present government but this is someone who even if I may not agree with everything he says, brings a productive contribution to the analysis of issues concerning our country. The other day he was talking about the recognition of the rights of the Creole community and he was so refreshing in his analysis in which he pointed to some State institutions but was not limited to a sterile “procès d’intention” which you often find in the alligator press/radio stations.

* Do you think the week-long media “overkill” over the Choonee episode has served to turn the tables against itself – and that the PM only had to wait for this to happen before taking his stand on the matter, however uncomfortable it might have made him feel initially?

Ironically what came out of this media overkill as you say, is not Mr Choonee’s at best confused speech, but the hidden agenda of some media groups. In his speech Mr Choonee spoke of “special rights” that some people have; God knows what he meant by that, but in the same breath, he also referred to some Bollywood icons in a botched-up attempt to point out that, at the end of the day, caste is not important for success. Ok, I wouldn’t tick Mr Choonee’s speech as one of the most inspiring speeches I’ve ever heard, but is it not a bit odd, that uninspiring as they may be, his references to Amitabh Bachchan and Katrina Kaif were NOT aired on the radio? Maybe if that had been the case, people would have gotten a fuller picture and realized that his speech was actually rather lame and confused instead of being as clear cut as it was portrayed to be. There’s a difference between a hopelessly uninspiring ministerial speech and one which “incite à la haine raciale”. And this is where the press’ shrill and skewed reporting was more of a relentless hunt for blood passing off as legitimate scrutiny.

* Not much has changed since the days of Joseph Coralie, NMU, Andre Masson, argues Kadress Pillay, in last week’s issue of this paper – it’s the same agenda (to bring down all who are opposed to particular interests), except that there are different operators at the helm of some media organisations today backed by the same financiers. How do you react to that?

Gutter press. These are the words that come to my mind right now as I just had one of those ridiculous encounters with a journalist. I was just at the Municipality of Quatre Bornes in a meeting with the Chief Executive because I had asked for an appointment in order to transmit a number of grievances, suggestions and requests that my constituents have communicated to me. He decides to come to the meeting with his departmental heads. That’s his prerogative. Lo and behold, when the meeting is over, I find a Radio One journalist waiting for me outside and hounding me as if I had just been caught committing some crime!

How did this happen? One of Mr Ramano’s agents thought that my going to the Municipality for a meeting was a juicy enough gossip to relate to the MMM MP. Never mind that this is something which I’ve been doing every so often since 2005 whenever I have to transmit my constituents’ “doléances” whether it’s at the Municipality, the CWA, the traffic management unit, etc., etc. And Mr Ramano decided to call the radio stations to “denounce” my actions! Who knows, maybe this too will be material to fill in those utterly false or distorted “Ça va se savoir” or “Confidentiels”! Here I am, skipping my very enjoyable yoga class to conscientiously do my duty as an MP, and you have this kind of gutter inquisition as if I had just acted against public interests! Maybe I’m totally dumb but I’m struggling to understand how this kind of journalism creates value for our society?

In any case, we know what the agenda of these sections of the press is. Going indeed way back to the times of NMU… Let us not delude ourselves. There are major interests of the economic oligarchy to be defended at all costs. This has been the case way back then and is still the case today. The journalists and even some editorialists who think of themselves of being independent-minded are actually hopelessly indoctrinated pawns serving the agenda to derail any government which may threaten the economic hegemony of the oligarchy. A government with an economic democratisation programme, for example.

And for this, they will cherry pick on who to hound and relentlessly attack. Don’t expect them to write even a single word about someone they consider to be their “sacred cow” even if that person happens to sojourn in the Labour Party. I hear these transparency gurus pontifying every now and then on corruption. Have anyone of them ever been interested in the utterly corrupt nexus of ties between a sectarian group based in Quatre Bornes, a former politician and casinos? Was there anyone interested in those kinds of public interest issues or was there an unwritten rule of “Pas touche nou…”? And these are the same people who will come and say they are only doing an oversight job? Oversight for some and overlook for others?

Oh and before you remind me of the tendency of some people to bring this on some supposed communalism terrain, let me take the example of Barack Obama’s tensed relationship with big capital in the US. This is what Bill Galston, a former Clinton official, recently pointed out – I forget whether it was in New York Times or Washington Post – “Obama won a democratic mandate to save capitalism from itself by curbing its excesses, a factor to which businesses seem to be blind. And Obama’s rhetoric on business is much, much milder than Franklin Roosevelt’s, who welcomed their hatred.” So please I hope you won’t take me on the utterly silly plane of supposed racism or communalism or what not.

I often hear some editorialists and journalists play the same old song: “We don’t want to be vassals of the power of the day.” But who said anyone is expecting media groups to be complacent or supporters or cheerleaders as they are when the MMM is in power? For goodness sake, all we can and should legitimately expect is basic norms of professionalism, fair treatment and the responsibility and maturity to verify information instead of publishing either false news or creative interpretations which would put to shame any accomplished drama writer.

Let me give you a few examples. Last Saturday a newspaper published a number of brief “news”. One was that Minister Pillay had been insulted. False. Another was about some supposed pressure for one ex-adviser not to obtain a job in the private sector. False again. Yet another one was about Mr Thomas supposedly funding his birthday party out of MT funds. False. A few weeks ago, it was about the supposed separate tables for PTr and MSM MPs at the National Assembly lunch room. Another false “news”. Take a look at today’s l’express headline regarding the Terre Rouge-Verdun road. Still false “news” much like the infamous Newsweek survey which did not cover Mauritius at all, but in which the journalist found that we had been “reléguée derrière” some countries! If these are not false news, then what words should we use? Professional journalistic norms à la mauricienne? Creative writing exercises? Laziness? Incompetence? You see what I mean? Again, there is a difference between a press servile to political power and a press with a not-so-hidden-agenda hostility, cherry picking its prey depending on who is in power.

* If the PM had been prompt to initially contradict the Minister of Culture, he didn’t then and hasn’t as yet said a word about the Minister of Labour-MBC-TV dispute. One cannot castigate “incorrect” behaviour in one instance and remain silent in another, isn’t it?

Any person who is entrusted by the Prime Minister to positions of responsibilities should know where their responsibility starts and where it ends. And they should have an elementary grasp of how institutions function. There are many parameters at play here. I think that the minister means well, but in my opinion, it seems like he got a bit carried away with the roaring publicity that the media, specially l’express, gave him. When you’re in a Labour Party-led government, it’s always a bad sign if l’express in particular is pumping you! This is almost always a sign that you are being used as a pawn… And God forbid, that a politician of the Labour Party be awarded “Person of the Year” by l’express, because we all know what eventually happens to these people!

There are two different issues here. One is whether there is any repression being practiced at the MBC and the other one is an issue regarding ministerial interference in various institutions.

On a side-note, let me take the case of the Commission headed by Prof Torul. In the case of the battle which trade unions had with the sugar industry regarding wage increases, do you think it would have been appropriate if any minister had say, interfered and directed to Prof Torul what he should or should not have written in his report? Maybe all these journalists who are genuinely interested in trade union rights, should talk to Mr Subron on this particular case. I know for a fact and Mr Subron knows it too, that it was the Prime Minister and no one else who determinedly ensured that Prof Torul’s independence was protected and respected in the face of some totally unacceptable, unlawful attempts to interfere and influence. In that sense, it was the Prime Minister who was pivotal in the final “dénouement” of this battle for the 20% increase in salary for the sugar industry workers.

That being said, healthy industrial relations have to exist at every workplace and workers rights have to be respected. By that I mean ALL workers’ rights, not just selective ones. I don’t know the details of this issue at the MBC, but what I know is that the current director general means business in cleaning out all kinds of disgusting practices. Starting with the distance travelled by the director general’s car! Do you know that the previous director general had registered a whopping 300,000 kms over just under 5 years on the car put at his disposal by the MBC?! This is equivalent to doing a complete tour of the country each and every single day of the year! Not to mention that the car, driven by God knows who, had been in numerous accidents, requiring millions of rupees of repair? Of course, let’s not mention the kinds of agreements between the previous management and some individuals who were earning something like Rs 100,000 per month for a 30-minute program of Bollywood oldies!

If the fish rots from its head, it’s anyone’s guess as to what kind of professionalism and discipline prevailed at the MBC before! Of course anyone who bothers to try to install some basic norms of discipline in a “panier de crabe” is bound to make a number of enemies. And this being Mauritius, the way to “retaliate” is of course by anonymous letters! As far as I know, people targeted in those anonymous letters are ALSO employees. Do they not have rights? Of course this does not mean that bringing professional norms at the MBC should also go hand in hand with any type of repression on workers.

But there are always two sides to a story. And I have learnt that when l’express starts pounding day in and day out, and that too with cowards who lack the courage to sign their opinions, there is always more than meets the eye.

At the end of the day, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A number of employees have been suspended at Air Mauritius. I sure hope that they have equal rights as a cherry-picked MBC employee. Will the minister adopt the exact same line of media-blitz action? I sure hope he does. I hope he won’t in the least hesitate to publicly demand that Air Mauritius re-integrates them immediately, failing which he will refer the management of Air Mauritius to the industrial court and to Prof Torul’s commission. Let’s suspend our opinions until we see how this case pans out.

* Why is it that one Minister should be jumping from one controversy to the other within the relatively short period of time after the general election whilst another Minister, apparently not to be outsmarted, has taken to shooting down anybody who would defy his summons? You would expect Ministers to get cracking doing substantive policy work, instead of that, wouldn’t you?

As I said, they have the privilege of working with a very demanding, meticulous Prime Minister who is also a master political strategist. They should at least try to learn from him!

* The government team seems to be taking a longer than expected time to really get cracking. It’s as if “le cœur n’y est pas ». Why is that so? Or is this situation so because it is a “gouvernement de continuité”?

Well, you are right to say that “le coeur n’y est pas” since “le Coeur du MMM n’y est pas”! And this is precisely why some media groups are desperately trying to fabricate cracks and splits and what not. And to give the impression that things are not quite right with the current government. The fact is that the government is doing the work it has to do in order to deliver on the programme on which it was elected to power. It’s as simple as that. Some media pundits had bet their bottom dollar on a victory of the MMM in the last general elections. They have been completely “à côté de la plaque” as far as the choice of the people is concerned and this “miscalculation” still rankles. While they deal with their major personal disappointment, the government is carrying on with the work they have to do.

* The government complains that some parts of the media and bodies like Amnesty International relish to publish negative and patently false views on government action but they overlooked similar connotations in statements made in the past by members of the Opposition. Is this perception of “double standards” to be rectified solely by passing tougher laws? Do we necessarily have to copy South Africa to limit freedom of expression to deal with the problem?

I am sorry but I can’t help but notice that Amnesty Mauritius suffers from the same selectiveness of outrage as the MMM and the gutter press. Did you by any chance hear the slightest whisper from Amnesty Mauritius when Mr Jeeha had said that only a Vaish could be presented as PM in the MMM? What about when the most disgusting communal campaign was unleashed against Mr Beebeejaun going to the point of questioning the genuineness of his faith? And what about the most dangerous real attempt “à la haine raciale” during the last general elections on Facebook? Were these people on a holiday or a paid sabbatical? Incidentally, let me tell you that we know who were behind this extremely irresponsible act and the PM acted wisely, making sure that it just died down otherwise the country could have gone aflame. Probably what some people wanted anyway. So I have the utmost respect for people who are consistent in their so-called outrage but not for those whose supposed outrage depend on which government is in power.

* How do you propose to deal with those who are busy trying to drive a wedge among members of the government or, more precisely, among the different constituents of the government?

You know, “les chiens aboient, la caravanne passe”, as the PM so aptly put it. The government has to deliver on its programme and all ministers are down to work to do just that, unlike those in the MMM and their acolytes in the press who are understandably still having an indigestion over their 5th consecutive electoral defeat.

* The PM stated at the recent celebration of the 20 years of Les Moulins de la Concorde that it was necessary to have a strong public-private sector partnership. Is it the start of a policy of “burying the hatchet” and identifying a more acceptable platform for sharing more equitably the gains from economic endeavour?

As a country, we have some major challenges to face in the context of the evolution of the economic crisis in the Eurozone. It would be best if we could all put our heads together to face those challenges in the long term interest of the nation. I don’t think we should have any doubt that the PM will want fairness and equity for all. I think he would prefer if this happened in collaboration with all stakeholders but we also all know that if need be he will not hesitate to insist that everyone play their part by the rules of the game, for the interests of all citizens and not just in the interests of some sectors or stakeholders of particular industries.

* Published in print edition on 9 September 2010

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