Beekrumsing Ramlallah, the founder of Mauritius Times, had always been interested in the uplift of the downtrodden, particularly the descendants of Indian immigrants. He had, in the early 1940s, set up the Sewa Samiti and put it under the leadership of Basdeo Bissoondoyal in the Jan Andolan movement. It was this movement that was mainly responsible for teaching the descendants of Indian labourers how to write their name in a language that was spoken in Mauritius. This was the new condition for eligibility to vote in the 1948 general elections. The number of electors exploded exponentially, and with it the thirst for education. It was this electorate that changed the physiognomy of the Legislative Assembly, the precursor to our National Assembly.
After two such elections (1948 and 1953) a new political elite was in place. But the battle for universal primary education and other social services was just beginning. It was at that time — in 1954, to be more precise — that Beekrumsing Ramlallah set up Mauritius Times as a vehicle for the presentation of the case for progress and democratisation. Kher Jagatsingh worked closely with Ramlallah in this new venture.
The fight for greater autonomy leading to full independence from the British colonizers became the leitmotiv for this new vehicle. Mauritius Times came on the scene at the right moment to give a voice to those intellectuals who wanted to contribute with their pen to the debate on the direction a new independent country should take. They had in mind the development of a modern Mauritius which would at the same time reflect the multi-cultural heritage of a nation in the making.
It was a weekly paper written almost wholly in English, and became a respected member of the print media. At that time there were four dailies written mainly in French — Le Mauricien, Le Cerneen, Advance and L’Oeuvre —, with only Le Mauricien having a continuous existence until now. These dailies were newspapers which had to deliver on the latest news, and keep up with their readers’ views and comments, as well as their likes and dislikes.
Mauritius Times did not have such an obligation as it was an opinion paper. However opinion papers do not have a long life if they do not adapt to the changing mood of their readers. That MT has been able to stay alive up to now is therefore a feat in itself. Ramlallah was a strong believer in the freedom of the press and he, along with other prominent editors, courted imprisonment for this fight. We can still see the attitude of the powers that be towards papers which dare criticize any of their actions, labelling the journalists as semi-intellectuals.
But can Mauritius Times continue in its present form? The rapid developments taking place in technology and mass communication have dented the efforts of even the most resourceful print media to continue delivering their papers as they used to half a century ago. Many of them have an online edition, and some of them have given up their paper edition to be available only online. They can deliver to any place anywhere in the world instantly, and what is even better, they can keep updating themselves continuously. Another great advantage is that online publications can be interactive.
The word ‘media’ however also includes films and the social media like Facebook and Twitter, the two most popular ones which have hundreds of millions of followers worldwide. The television is essentially a film media for news, movies and live events. The print media cannot compete with the television. The Internet is the other mass communication media which has proved to be an important weapon in the hands of those who want to inform and influence others. The print media is today at the crossroads. It has to re-invent itself or die a certain death.
Books have also become quite expensive with the result that very few people buy them now, unless they are needed for their studies. Even then they prefer to go to the Internet if the subject matter is at a higher level and has to be frequently updated. The Internet has the added advantage of using video clips to make a more visual impact. In some countries like India the literate people — the Bengalis particularly — are still bookworms and like to buy newspapers and books for reading. I was once privileged to be in the company of the great Khushwant Singh when we were invited by the Calcutta Book Fair to discuss about the place of books in modern society. The contrast with the Delhi Book Fair was clear. In Calcutta individuals throng to the Fair to buy books for reading, whereas in Delhi it was publishers and booksellers who attend the Fair to do business. In Mauritius our delivery of education is still mainly through books although there is a crying need to use more modern technological gadgets to support the teaching/learning process.
The dilemma for a paper like Mauritius Times is not to be underestimated. It has up to now been able to stay alive thanks to many people who have remained attached to the paper for decades, but also thanks to its policy of opening up its columns to anybody who can make an interesting point, whether the editor-in-chief agrees with the writer or not. One other thing that has kept it going is that it is not in competition with the other news media. We are witnessing the lowering of standards in some newspapers which have to rely on sordid stories and unverified allegations about top people to be able to sell, which will help satisfy their shareholders. MT is not in the business of relying on sordid stories to attract readers because it is a serious paper that some people will buy because they are interested in what it prints.
But for how long will people continue buying papers like Mauritius Times and how will they attract new readers, particularly the young ones? It needs to have regular features on some issues that people would like to have information on. One of these is that people are becoming more health conscious these days, and would like to know about healthy diets and health exercises. Wellbeing is the new mantra . Natural medicine, yoga and pranayam (breathing exercises) are finding themselves being more accepted and accessible anywhere in the world now and their benefits have been found to be genuine. This is one area which will interest young as well old people if it is well documented and presented.
It is in the interest of all of us to wish Mauritius Times a further much longer existence than what it has already achieved contre vents et marées. Even in the conservative Civil Service the retirement age has increased by five years whilst those born this century in the developed world are expected to work up to the age of 80 and have a life expectancy of 120!
* Published in print edition on 14 August 2014