Change can only come from the people. We above all need to cut loose from the shackles and trappings of a banana republic
By Mrinal Roy
Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.
— Noam Chomsky
The textbook description of our democracy extolled in official speeches in international fora is such a far cry from the democratic reality of the country. Democracy is more and more fettered and shackled by government overbearing control over state institutions, state companies and key posts of the state decision-making machinery through nepotism, cronyism and the appointment of the coterie and party faithful. This is certainly not the democratic Mauritius our parents fought for during the battle for the independence of the country.
When one surveys the present state of the Mauritian democracy, it is blatantly evident that the high-handed manner parliamentary democracy is being curbed and the decried manner the national public broadcaster financed from public funds is misused by government as an abject instrument of daily partisan propaganda fail to meet the benchmark of free speech of the Noam Chomsky quote. There is instead a patently Goebbels approach towards free speech by government.
A vibrant democracy is always in a state of flux and is constantly evolving and expanding the democratic space, not curbing it. The history of democracy shows that people are consistently fighting for new democratic rights to further expand and stretch the frontiers of the democratic space with the same verve and determination of those who fought for our fundamental rights and game changing democratic milestones such as decolonization, women voting rights or the end of apartheid in South Africa on 4 May 1990, etc.
These fundamental rights inter alia include the right to self determination, the right to liberty and privacy, the right to due process of law, the right to freedom of movement, the right to freedom of thought, the right to freedom of expression, freedom of religion and peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association. They are protected from government encroachment.
In the United States, despite the American revolution and the Bill of Rights in 1791 guaranteeing fundamental rights to people, it is only on August 18, 1920 that the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified by the US Congress. Even though all Americans had gained the right to vote, many southern states very often required coloured voters to take literacy tests which were confusing and nearly impossible to pass. It is thanks to the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s which fought to gain equal rights for Black Americans under the law in the United States that the Voting Acts law passed on August 6, 1965 banned all voter literacy tests. In France, although all men above the age of 25 who paid a quantum of taxes were given the right to vote in 1791, women had to wait until 1944 before they were granted the right to vote.
In contrast, instead of expanding the democratic space in the country, amendments are being voted and new laws are being enacted to restrict it by broadening the powers of regulators and a plethora of ‘Authorities’ and confer to them in-house the right to subjectively pass judgement, sanction and fine, etc. There are serious risks of abuse by these ‘kangaroo’ courts. These encroach on the prerogatives of the judiciary and are in the teeth of the sacrosanct principle of separation of powers (and responsibilities) of the three branches of government, namely legislative, executive and judicial to ensure that the government is effective and citizens’ rights are protected. All those responsible for such abuses must be made accountable.
What is also galling is that those unfairly penalised have to seek redress at their costs in the courts.
What can be more tell-tale of plummeting standards of democracy in the country than the hegemonic control of government over the national broadcaster financed from public funds. Prime time news aired by national broadcasters in democratic countries such as, for example, the BBC provide a comprehensive review of topical issues and events. The government views through the Prime Minister or government ministers as well as those of leaders of opposition parties are regularly sought on controversial and all other issues to provide a balanced view to the people to allow them who remain the ultimate arbiter to form their own opinion.
In a democracy, a national broadcaster cannot be an insidious instrument of indoctrination providing one-sided government views on controversial matters and contested policies without giving the opportunity to those not in agreement to expose their views. The very essence of freedom of speech is to allow those with opposing views to be given a fair opportunity to voice them. A true democracy is also about listening to the voice of dissent. It is when such democratic opportunities are not given to those who do not agree by the national broadcaster or the authorities to express their opinion that people have recourse to alternative media platforms to voice their views and argue their case.
Prime time news on national TV should, as is the case in the top news channels in the democratic world, provide a balanced review and analysis of topical local and international issues of the day. Prime time news must above all be informative and objective as mainstream citizens watch news to be objectively informed on what is happening locally and in the world.
People certainly do not want to be subjected to rehashed verbatim extracts of the Prime Minister’s speeches and declarations or government diatribes tediously recycled several times sometime over days whilst the press conferences of opposition parties are treated summarily.
People watch other international news channels every day to be au fait with what is happening in the world and daily realize that the particular format and brand of prime-time news dished out daily by the national broadcaster is anathema in the democratic world. Such partisan misuse of the national public broadcaster financed from public funds is unprecedented.
Members of parliament have a crucial role in a democracy. They are elected by the people and their loyalty must be towards the people and their concerns. This is what happens in the best democracies of the world. For example, in the UK, Boris Johnson won a landslide in the 2019 general election with a 80-strong majority. This majority has been eroded by dissent and MPs voicing the opposition of their constituents to new restrictive measures to fight the Covid-19 Omicron variant surge which were envisaged by the UK government during the Christmas period. Press reports put the tally of Conservative rebels at more than 70 which threatened to put the government majority in peril. The government was forced to review its proposals.
This type of rebellion by MPs against contested policies and legislations tabled by the government basically never happens in the country. The only example one can recall is the resignation of PMSD from L’Alliance Lepep in December 2016 to scuttle the widely contested government proposals to hobble the constitutional powers of the DPP.
The principal bane of our democracy is that once elected by the people, the loyalty of elected MPs shifts to a blind allegiance to the ruling government and its leader. This begs so many questions. Do the elected MPs not have a moral duty to gauge and discuss controversial policies and contested legislations with their constituents before voting? Are they not taken aback by the array of scandals rocking the government? Are they not jolted by the inordinate delay taken to get to the bottom of so many pending investigations involving grave allegations of wrongdoing levelled against Ministers and others?
What particularly riles the people is that some MPs even stitch up nondescript speeches fawning over widely contested legislation to justify the unjustifiable. Are MPs fighting for the concerns of their constituents or assuring their creature comforts?
Against such a deplorable backdrop, we need as a nation at the dawn of a New Year to mull over the state of our democracy and the disarray of the opposition parties as this is not a viable and tenable situation for the future and the prospects of the young. Change can only come from the people. We therefore above all need to cut loose from the shackles and trappings of a banana republic. We also need to reignite and re-establish the seminal values, principles and ethos our parents wanted our democracy to be built on during their battle for the independence of the country. Our sacrosanct freedom of speech must be the detonator of a paradigm shift in governance. The present shameful travesty of democracy must end forthwith.
* Published in print edition on 31 December 2021
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