By S. Modeliar
When the daily l’express was not invited to attend a press conference of the new Minister of Finance, a campaign was started against the government. L’express is today in the forefront of a tug of war opposing it to the government. That paper is shouting from the rooftops that freedom of the press is coming to an end. The slightest observation, action or statement by any one in the government becomes a pretext for all the journalists of l’express to take up arms against the government.
The latest example is the walk out of Rabin Bhujun of l’express from the press conference of the Prime Minister. That press conference was dealing with three very important issues, Chagos, Tromelin and the French/Africa summit held in France. Mr Bhujun decided to convert that press conference dedicated to national issue into a cross-examination of the Prime Minister on the conflict between that paper and government at a time when the matter was still pending before a Judge in Chambers. He put at least twelve questions on that conflict.
The tenor of the questions and the tone reminded one of the cross-examination of a witness in a court of law. Unfortunately the Prime Minister fell into the trap and chose to answer the questions. Little did he realise that he was being cross-examined by somebody who seemed to be approaching his task with a clear, premeditated strategy. The Prime Minister would be well advised at a next press conference to limit questions to the specific issues raised.
In a court of law when a witness is being cross-examined, he/she is under the protection of the judge notwithstanding the wide latitude that counsel has to cross-examine. During that press conference the Prime Minister was at the mercy of l’express, as represented by Rabin Bhujun. The only protection the Prime Minister would have had is public opinion against the abuse of the freedom of the press displayed by the representative of newspapers.
In 2006, following the incidents involving the MSM in front of the premises of l’express, we wrote in these columns: “The l’express incident should be a wakeup call for the press. Our press has always resisted a Media Commission as if such a commission would be a monster that would eat up the press, digest its articles and throw them out in a more subservient form. This is an erroneous view of a Media Commission. L’express has always shown suspicion of such a commission without saying why but has preyed on the emotions of its readers on the issue. As an example we can quote l’express, dated 27 March 2006: ‘On peut se demander si le dessein du gouvernement n’est pas d’imposer un contrôle étatique sur la presse. C’est une grave menace. Il faut organiser la résistance. Ceci n’est pas que l’affaire des journalistes. C’est le droit de savoir du citoyen qui est en jeu.’ This was written by Mr Raj Meetarbhan the editor in chief of the paper.
“No one can guarantee that what happened the other day might not happen again in a more violent way. This is not a scarecrow being brandished to frighten the press. This is an advice that the press should remain strong, independent but from now on be also objective and responsible. It cannot pretend to hold absolute wisdom and always be right. Though our law espouses the philosophy of publish and be damned, the damned part is always played in the courts and is quantified in monetary terms. What if the citizens decide to bypass the courts and take justice in their own hands and decide the way they are going to evaluate the damned part. Tant va la cruche à l’eau qu’à la fin elle se casse.”
L’express wants to pontificate but does not want to be accountable. It wants to stick to that saying publish and be damned, attributed to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. History teaches that an abuse of the democratic process has never been beneficial to anybody. The campaign of l’express is solely geared against one person, Navin Ramgoolam on account of his conflict with Jean Claude de l’Estrac. This is all.
Freedom of the press is not in danger in Mauritius. Had it been so we would not have seen or heard that daily heaping criticisms on Navin Ramgoolam and his ministers. L’express cannot pretend to have a monopoly on truth or what is good for the country. This paper wants to impose its views on the country and to mould public opinion in a way that suits its political agenda. This what the whole issue boils down to.
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2010