Muzzling Free Speech

Editorial

When legislatures are unable or not allowed to hold governments to account, it usually falls upon the independent media and increasingly now social media to scrutinize governments’ actions, campaign for transparency and accountability. Parliaments are central to making democratic politics function properly and in the public interest. However, they can and indeed in some countries are often bypassed during moments of crisis – as the current Covid-19 pandemic one – when governments have recourse to emergency procedures for public procurements. It appears to be the case even in established democracies in the western world as much as it does in African and Asian societies.

Insofar the Mauritian context is concerned, challenges to parliamentary oversight have not come about since the onset of the pandemic. It has been seriously undermined since 2019 and even earlier, but there’s a deeper and long-drawn situation of lack of accountability and transparency with regard to the actions taken (or not taken) by the government and its institutions, especially those with an investigative mandate in matters of crime and corruption and other shady deals that have tarnished the credibility of our institutions more than at any time before.

It is thanks to media activism (independent and non-State sponsored written press and broadcasters) as well as social media that a long series of irregularities and misdeeds have been flagged – the contractual agreements which conveniently come with a mandatory confidentiality clause — from Liverpool Football Club to generous dishouts of public monies by the Central Bank through its MIC undertaking, the Safe City project and the St Louis Redevelopment projects, the Emergency Procurements… and thanks also to activist lawyers the Kistnen Papers — all of which have the potential to cause “annoyance” to whoever feels targeted. The earlier government attempt to curtail abuses on social media (though necessary when the honour, character, reputation or goodwill of any person has been maliciously and unjustly maligned) has been checkmated by the judgement of Justices D. Chan Kan Cheong and K.D. Gunesh-Balaghee in the matter Seegum J v The State of Mauritius, who found Section 46(h)(ii) of the Information and Communication Technologies Act (“as it stood at the time of the commission of the present offences”), in relation to the offence of using an information and communication service for the purpose of causing annoyance, for which Vinod Seegum was prosecuted, as unconstitutional.

The latest government’s initiative to amend the Independent Broadcasting Act has met with strong opposition from civil society and opposition parties across the political spectrum. The Bill’s different provisions – from empowering the IBA to impose administrative penalties on private broadcasters, the obligations that a broadcaster will have to comply with before obtaining a licence, now brought down to a duration of one year from the earlier three years, thereby threatening the financial viability of a private broadcaster, the power entrusted to the IBA to consider the “past conduct” of the broadcaster before renewing its licence, the obligation to disclose information sources – all are clearly threats to free speech and to whichever private broadcaster which is considered a thorn in the side of the governing alliance.

Other unacceptable features include provisions to by-pass or make tenuous judiciary appeal for these administrative penalties through the powers conferred to an independent review authority which would be filled by political nominees. As for the proposed provision that the independent broadcaster or news media would have its license delivered and renewed on a yearly basis is to our knowledge unprecedented on financial or operational grounds, making access to funds and investment extremely dicey. The threats are so ominous as to raise constitutional issues on several fronts according to many independent jurists and one wonders whether the times facing the country and the hardships being endured were appropriate to consider such amendments on a priority basis. The previous attempt in 1984 by an MSM government to muzzle free press backfired against a united front of journalists. Is this a renewed attempt to demonstrate how the MSM feels about press and media freedoms, indeed about our democratic space, under the eyes of the international community and their chancelleries?


* Published in print edition on 30 November 2021

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