The press should not only be free and independent, but also be well regulated to indicate that it does not have only power but also a sense of responsibility
By Surendra Bissoondoyal
“Voltaire (1694-1778) the French writer-philosopher and critic had once said: ‘Judge a person by his questions rather than by his answers.’ It is the right and the duty of the media to ask questions, and we will judge them by the questions they ask. It is for those to whom the questions are addressed to answer them and to provide the required information. And we will judge them by the answers they give…”
The past makes us understand the present and gives us the insight to forge the future — if we are willing to learn. The road to press freedom has been strewn with humps and bumps, and is not likely to become smooth judging by what is happening in Mauritius and some other parts of the world.
In 1824, when the mistress of the Duke of Wellington threatened to publish her memoirs and to include in them his letters to her, the Duke uttered these now famous words: “Publish and Be Damned”. This phrase became the motto of the free press which wanted to promote the right to information and the right to express an opinion without fear or favour.
In 1963 a sex scandal involving John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, and Christine Keeler, a ‘high class’ prostitute who was also having an affair with a Russian spy rocked British politics. These revelations were made by the British press, which persevered in spite of denials by Profumo in Parliament. A few months later Profumo resigned, followed by the Prime Minister, leading to the rout of the governing Conservative Party at the general elections that followed. In 1972 the Watergate scandal — which first came to light in the Washington Post — rocked American politics leading to the resignation of the then American President Richard Nixon.
Investigative journalism has been the leitmotiv of some of the Mauritian press also. Some papers have stood the test of time in spite of measures taken by the authorities to make them bend to their will. Arm-twisting such as denying paid publicity to papers which criticize the government in place has been used in the past also to starve the free press.
The Right to Information has galvanized people across the world and has engineered the removal of despots and other corrupt leaders, be they politicians or businessmen. The most powerful instrument of communication, the Internet, has opened up a new revolutionary mode of instant communication which can spread to the remotest corners of the world. The Arab Spring has come about largely in the wake of this new powerful arm in the hands of people who have endured despotic and dictatorial rule helplessly in the past.
In Mauritius the free press is now complemented by the advent of private radio stations, and together they are providing a democratic forum for citizens who have grievances against the powers that be. Attempts to curb the influence of these two media will not only be resisted but will also show the biased propaganda of the monopolistic government media, which have lost their credibility.
Satellite television, online editions of the print media and social media like Facebook and Twitter have seen their influence spread beyond the traditional geographic limits. This is why the print media will only survive in a world of instant communication if it is complemented by online editions. If we consider the Mauritian press, we have seen how it has been transformed over the past half a century to offer its readers a whole range of interests not only in the field of information, but also in sports, cultural activities, education, business and the economy and new technological innovations. It also provides a forum for its readers to express their opinion freely on a wide range of issues of national and international importance.
We are witnessing a rapid transformation of the means and power of communication which will overthrow monopolistic tendencies on the part of self proclaimed emperors and their cronies. Provided, of course, that this transformation does not tilt in the opposite direction. We have seen, from the French Revolution to the so-called People’s Republics, how one group of people obtained power in the name of freedom and used that power against the same people who had helped them overthrow despotic rulers.
It is therefore essential for the law of a country to be so drafted that it does not put too much power into the hands of one group of people only. The legislative and executive arms of government should not be above the law. More importantly the press (or rather the media today), ‘le quatrieme pouvoir’ as the French call it, should not only be free and independent, but also be well regulated to indicate that it does not have only power but also a sense of responsibility.
Voltaire (1694-1778) the French writer-philosopher and critic had once said: “Judge a person by his questions rather than by his answers.” It is the right and the duty of the media to ask questions, and we will judge them by the questions they ask. It is for those to whom the questions are addressed to answer them and to provide the required information. And we will judge them by the answers they give.
* Published in print edition on 3 May 2013