There were times when good journalism used to be defined by the motto “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” In the present days of digital and instant news every person seems to have not only his own views but also his own version of what are the “facts” about each and every socio-political or economic issue. In these circumstances the profession is struggling to rejig the equation between facts and comments in the determination of what is euphemistically called “independent” journalism. It may therefore seem strange that the Mauritius Times founded in 1954 by Beekrumsing Ramlallah with the support of a few progressive intellectuals who shared a common vision of a nascent democratic Mauritian nation seems to have resolved this dilemma from its very first editions.
The founder had clearly chosen to take the less travelled and much more risky route of creating a paper which would be fully committed to favour the expression of “opinions” over the reporting of facts. In this they were clearly following in the footsteps of a greatly respected tradition which had marked the history of mankind ever since Guttenberg invented the printing press. Every time that oppression and the suppression of civil liberties have taken place within a nation, some individuals have had recourse to the printing press to either clandestinely or openly challenge the oppressive order. Two common features of such actions throughout history have been that these individuals used the prevailing technology of the printing press and took huge personal risks in the name of propagating “ideas” of freedom and liberty.
The post- second world war years were marked globally by a weakened Great Britain after the efforts of war and resistance to Hitler. The first tremors of what would lead to the end of the erstwhile British Empire had been signalled by the breakaway of the “jewel in the crown” as India acceded to independence, incidentally on the night of the 14th of August 1947. The “struggle for independence” in one form or the other was the determining political theme in most former colonies and Mauritius was not going to be an exception. The 1950s were therefore marked by political struggles for universal adult suffrage and the setting up of “self-government.” Two major schools of thought that were in full agreement about the ultimate objective of independence of the country were radically opposed about the methods of political struggle. The Bissoondoyal brothers — Basdeo and Sookdeo – who were largely inspired by the Gandhian principles of non-cooperation with the colonial authorities, had launched their Jan Andolan movement and the “Zamana” newspaper. The leaders of the Labour Party in the 1950s, on the other hand, were more attuned to the “Westminster” model of politics and relied on mass agitation accompanied by engagement with the authorities. The coming together of both movements within the Independence Party to fight the 1967 elections constituted an inflexion point in the future of the country.
It was in the midst of these tumultuous events and intellectual fervour that the Mauritius Times was founded in 1954. The motivations of B. Ramlallah and the intellectuals who supported him in that venture could not be clearer — they had no intention of being mere bystanders and passive observers of the events unfolding around them. They intended to be actors and determining ones at that, and the paper which they founded would provide the instrument for them to achieve their objectives. Very quickly the Mauritius Times headquarters was to become the nerve centre of a more or less informal network of like-minded people to whom it provided a platform to express their views. Basically the like-mindedness revolved around the ideas of not only achieving independence for the country but equally importantly, about how to ensure that the fledgling country would be a place for the toiling masses as well as the other sections of society to have a better life. The concepts of the welfare state, a fairer distribution of wealth and creating the skills and talents that the independent country would require were regularly debated in the weekly.
The publishers, editors and contributors to the paper were constantly harassed by the colonial authorities who had generally been conditioned to see “reds” (communists in the service of Moscow) among all those who dared to fight for the downtrodden and for justice and a more egalitarian society. The Mauritius Times had chosen the side it was going to be on and its founder never flinched even in the face of the worst threats. Through thick and thin and sometimes in the direst conditions the paper has regularly come out of press ever since that fateful 14th of August 1954 to share views and comments on national and global issues. The tradition of the paper which definitely makes it somewhat “out of sorts” among the Mauritian press has been preserved although it has simultaneously adapted to the ever-changing environment.
No enterprise can survive if it does not constantly adapt to its environment. Today the newspaper industry globally faces the toughest challenges it may have had to deal with in its long history. To the extent that the Mauritius Times is classified as a sort of unique experience within the local industry it will have to face distinct challenges related to its nature, tradition and mission. The most serious issues will surely revolve around adjusting to the new challenges posed by the technology driven changes in the industry – in the age of instantly accessible blogs on the internet it is the quality and depth of content which will finally make the difference for a paper whose unique selling proposition is that is provides comments and views. Marketing or the faculty of creating a special space in the mind of the consumer for the weekly is the second most important factor when considering its future trajectory. While a sixty-year history undoubtedly does not guarantee a bright future it does provide a solid foundation and the proof that those at the helm have been doing the right things as and when needed. If for no other reason the present generation owes it to its founder to ensure that the Mauritius Times continues to contribute in defining the future of this country.
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2014