The Court Jester & Freedom of Expression
By S. Callikan
In a fair-minded spirit, the establishment since 2015 by the then Vice-PM Showkutally Soodhun and President of the ruling party, the MSM, of personal relations at various high levels of the House of Saud, some of its Ministries and probably, in its wake, the Dubai emirates, could well have been seen by the ruling politburo as a very useful plank that could serve national, if not the ruling coalition, interests.
At a time when key government Ministers went on their own better judgements or were despatched half-way round the world, under the key Finance Minister’s guise, Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, to seek money for any type of development projects, forget the national debt burden, the prospects of magnanimous petro-dollars flushing into the country were not to be ignored.
The stage seemed set when the Vice-PM, with the External Affairs in tow, seemed to have been granted exclusive high-level authority or supervision over the processes leading to the opening of a Mauritian embassy in Saudi Arabia, in addition to personally negotiating the numbers and best travel and residence terms for pilgrims to Mecca.
In the wake of that buoyancy we all know the famous flagship developments to be undertaken by Minister Roshi Bhadain under the former PM’s stewardship and better known as Heritage City, where the negotiating and bartering skills of that tandem of volubile Ministers managed to take SAJ on a gracious fathering trip to meet Dubai counterparts and presumably sign off, on a Government-to-Government basis, the project contours, loans and surrounding conditions.
Then Minister Bhadain, with SAJ’s steadfast blessing, had already acquired notoriety, when he almost single-handedly renegotiated the DTAA with India, an irksome agreement to Indian internal revenue services and a renegotiation which Indian officials had long sought for, even unsuccessfully offering to disburse considerable sums to that end. Capitulation to Indian officialdom was made palatable by grandfathering clauses deferring full impact on our financial services sector and undoubted Indian generosity to fund our cherished projects, most notably the twin towers, giant stroboscope and bollywood plaza of Heritage City.
Until, that is, a succession of upheavals, including the removal of Minister Bhadain and the handing over of SAJ’s prime ministership to his son Pravind Jugnauth. Heritage and its multi-million dollar preliminary paid up expenses, were duly tossed aside and replaced by the Metro Express tramway project, the new darling of the authorities in the new scheme of things at the highest levels.
But that’s history now, except for the fact that VPM Soodhun, quickly distantiating himself from the Heritage megaflop and declaring total allegiance as equably to the son as to the father seems to have retained that special coveted position of plenipotentiary intermediate for all matters pertaining to the Middle East. It has become common knowledge that, with or without the consent of the nominal but side-lined Ministry for External Affairs or at times, even the Prime Minister, Hon Pravind Jugnauth, the MSM-party President, may, by virtue of his personal initiatives and contacts, serve national interests or embarrass and even embroil the State in controversial stands.
We heard of his appointed or self-appointed role in bartering one or more oil shipments from the Saudis when the STC was in legal jeopardy in India over consequences of the Betamax affair. We also know of the public controversies when he was alleged to have, on personal initiative, whole-heartedly aligned our country with Saudi animosity against the Qataris. It was a singularly embarrassing moment in a complex area of geopolitics where knowledgeable countries tread with caution and when our External Affairs had to scramble to redress the declared national policy of “friend to all, enemy to none”.
The lessons regarding the destabilisng risks of such an unalloyed mandate through personal diplomacy have not been drawn, it seems. Even while the recent ICTA amendments were being enacted to curtail severely freedom of expression on the internet and social networks, the MSM President, still awaiting trial, has been reported to have been allegedly involved in one way or another in the Dubai police and immigration authorities clamp-down on the Facebooker known as OnenOnly. Once again, it seems, according to press reports, that neither the PM, nor any of the official channels, and, least of all, neither the MSM politburo seemed aware of the behind-the-scenes initiatives and activities of its anointed President.
In the absence of fuller facts, we will abstain from commenting further beyond noting the risky nature of any dealings, discussions and initiatives that may be taking place by a senior MSM-party official left to his own devices in the quagmire of Middle East and its complex diplomatic setup. This may have nothing to do with the intense unabated international furore over the alleged role of the “highest levels” of the Saudi government in the despicable and barbaric murder of the Washington post correspondent journalist Jamal Khashoggi, yet it may underlie the need for caution in geo-diplomacy.
Can PMO afford to wonder what else a “court jester” purporting high-level blessings may or may not say or do in the region? Have we for instance, unbeknown to Mauritian authorities, taken sides in the coalition war against the unfortunate Yemenis, a daily mass carnage by the Saudi-led coalition? Or perhaps in the Saud kingdom’s contentious relationships with some of its neighbours from the Persian Gulf to the Ottomans? Or over the naval and military jostlings in the Indian Ocean? Or even in the occult funding of radical extremism throughout the region?
What baggage is being carried by the uncontrolled diplomat who has established privileged quarters over the Middle East? Government must surely feel that the local Sheikh’s undoubted skills in ingratiating himself there could be of use to further national interests, can his more wayward dispositions be effectively reined in and by whom?
North Korean smell
But this is probably just a minor annoyance in the wider moves that are being launched by the ruling regime and its agents to severely curtail freedom of expression on the internet and the social networks through the amendments brought in and expeditiously enacted in Parliament. While there exists a considerable panoply of legal instruments to stem comments that are deliberately offensive or liable to derail communal harmony on the net and in the media, the criminalisation of offences has been raised from a maximum of five years to ten years penal servitude, while the onus of showing deliberate intent to causing harm, annoyance or displeasure has been deleted.
Much has already been said and written about those new legal provisions, ushered under the fig-leaf pretext of better protection of under-age kids or cyber-bullying, and there is no denying that the legal profession, the constitutionalists, the media and the wide community of internet users have been alarmed by an enactment that basically would have assimilated the 2014 Lepep campaigners as hardened criminals. Obviously there is a political surmise that the MSM-ML-Transfuges are so worried of being hoisted by their own petard in the coming elections that they are having recourse to what feels and smells like a North Korean measure.
A post or repost of anything causing annoyance to anybody under the sun, is now liable to ten years imprisonment while much the same or much worse can be freely dispensed by the press, at inaugural ceremonies and political speeches or on soap boxes. The absurdity of its implementation by the CP for any annoying post causing a hundred thousand likes and several thousand reposts is mind-numbing. It is vaguely grotesque to imagine legions of police officers, liberated from the immense tasks of tackling a severely deteriorating criminality and lawlessness situation, who would now be specially inducted, trained and equipped to chase unwanted and annoying posts at the drop of a hat!
This has made headlines in international news media and organisations. It may well be unconstitutional and totally unbefitting a modern democracy as has been authoritatively concluded by the full bench of the Indian Supreme Court in an appeal lodged by students, NGOs and others against a similar blockbuster measure introduced by legislators in 2009 in the Indian Parliament.
(The full judgement dating from 2015 is available online at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/photo/46675215.cms)
India is a more complex society, with greater risks of social disruptions but certainly a far more mature democracy, which while operating under its own Constitution, offers legal and constitutional views that are often Commonwealth benchmarks in matters pertaining more generally to a robust democracy, freedom of expression or good governance. One could take many quotes from that judgement, for instance (underlining in original), citing a landmark preceding US judge:
“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means…”
“To justify suppression of free speech there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced.”
Or perhaps this more sobering thought cited from another landmark US judgement:
“Thought control is a copyright of totalitarianism, and we have no claim to it. It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”
provisional charge for “annoyance”
We have no legal or constitutional experience but even a layman can understand the concerns that are being raised impinge the very fabric of democratic functionings and will probably not go unchallenged. However, as we have no means for that Constitutional test, legists have to wait for a citizen’s arbitrary arrest on a provisional charge for “annoyance”, oftentimes by overzealous officers at the break of dawn, in front of family and neighbours, his/her being forcibly dragged out, oftentimes when magistratures are closed, inviting him/her to spending a full week-end in jail with accompanying humiliations of strip-searches, bail appearances and the years or resources that have to be spent to do so.
Neither Minister Etienne Sinatambou, who lamely ducked that legalistic sequence on radio, nor the AG, nor Vice-PM Ivan Collendavelloo, nor the numerous legal minds on the MSM or Government payrolls, nor even the interim Vice-President who signed it off are unaware of the implications of the enactment, of its repercussions on the international scene, or of its drift towards a more cynically authoritarian state. The coming months may be determinant for the political schemes and plots under way.
* Published in print edition on16 November 2018
65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.
With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.
The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.