Governments have not been elected to hide things from the people. They must govern in a transparent manner
By Mrinal Roy
‘Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.’ — Noam Chomsky
Despite the government rhetoric and tom-tomming about the high democratic standards in the country, the stark reality is that intolerance towards criticisms and opposing views is ‘steadily narrowing the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal’. In ‘A letter on Justice and Open Debate’ published earlier this month in the US Harper’s Magazine hundreds of academics, authors, columnists, etc., have raised their voices and denounced the growing and decried restrictions on freedom of opinion and free speech, which are fundamental and sacrosanct rights of people in a democratic society.
Orwell’s 1984. Photo – writersdigest.com
The debate in the United States obviously encompasses a broader range of issues such as the widespread protests ‘for racial and social justice, demands for police reform and wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across the US society’. Political dogmatism and inability of those in power to accept opposing views and constructive criticisms are ‘weakening our norms of open debate’. The signatories of the letter, who include Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis or J.K. Rowling, etc., argue that ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted’. More disquieting still, those in power, in a kneejerk reaction ‘of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms… The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.’
This debate is particularly relevant to Mauritius. MPs and governments, who are elected by the people, have to be accountable and answerable to the people. Governments have not been elected to hide things from the people. They must govern in a transparent manner. Once in power they cannot stonewall legitimate questions on their governance of the country. There is therefore a mounting public outcry about the appalling state of governance in the country especially when so many things have gone awry.
This is inter alia epitomized by the protracted delay in getting to the bottom of the alleged case of corruption and bribery in the Rs 4.3 billion CEB St Louis power plant contract despite public confirmation of wrongdoings by ‘members of the Mauritian administration and others’ by the funding agency the African Development Bank and the contractor Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor.
The public indignation also relatesto the unending array of botched and costly decisions taken by cohorts of political appointees of every ilk nominated to fat cat jobs at public expense at the head or on the board of government institutions and state-owned companies. The upshot is that yet again unsecured loans of purportedly over a billion Rupees were approved by the State Commercial Bank and prime state lands valued at billions of Rupees allegedly risked being allocated to promoters without the due process of an open tender.
The government and the people have also woken up to the financial pitfalls and throes of ordering Rs1.5 billion of medical supplies and equipment during the Covid-19 lockdown through emergency procurement procedures from untested suppliers without taking basic commercial precautions to ascertain that the quality of equipment such as ventilators ordered are checked and attested by independent quality surveyors and form part of the set of documents verified by the bank before effecting payment.
Instead of responding to mounting criticisms of its governance in a transparent and accountable manner, the government has resorted to spin doctoring to sweep legitimate interrogations under the carpet. The national TV has since years been converted into a partisan propaganda machine at public expense to conjure a narrative which daily extols government performance. Obscure associations and notorious sycophants, who unabashedly support the government’s narrative, obtain lengthy TV coverage during prime time whereas scant coverage is given to press conferences of the leader of the opposition or elected leaders of opposition parties.
Instead of being a forum of constructive debate in the best traditions of a parliamentary democracy, the deliberations of the National Assembly are systematically marred by frequent expulsions of MPs of the opposition in the teeth of established norms of fair parliamentary practice. This seriously undermines and limits their role as MPs and their contribution in the debate leading to the enactment of laws and government policy decisions.
The government is above all answerable to the people. No shenanigan or stratagem to dodge embarrassing parliamentary questions can save the government from the scrutiny and scathing verdict of public opinion. As is too often the case, the failures of previous governments cannot be put forward as an alibi for present incompetence. The role of the Speaker in the best parliamentary democracies of the world is not that of a sanctimonious discipline master but to oil the parliamentary machinery through his diplomacy, judgment and standing as a fair arbiter of parliamentary debate and certainly not to clog it.
Stricter laws are being passed to constrict the freedom of opinion especially on social media. The obvious intent is to intimidate, deter and censor. The changes brought to laws governing the use of social media in the country have led government ministers to register complaints against social media users and triggered police raids to arrest those incriminated. Are the legal standards for defamation and libel being lowered to unreasonable levels? A random comment on social media cannot be the subject of indictment. There cannot be double standards as in Orwell’s 1984 where some animals with bloated egos are more equal than others. President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump are daily being made fun of on social media. Are they zeroing on and suing those who dare do so? Surely, Presidents, PMs, Ministers and governments have much more important matters to deal with.
Social media is just a platform of communication. It cannot become a judge of what is objectionable or not. Whatever criteria are used by a media platform to remove posts is bound to be extremely subjective and governed by benchmarks arbitrarily chosen by the platform. There is a serious debate on this key issue in the US. An independent journalist recently argued that as Twitter has a liberal bias, it had overwhelmingly sanctioned and removed conservative posts. All this limits freedom of speech. The way forward is not harsher laws to muzzle critics but education on a more responsible use of social media platforms. The digital world and social media have broadened the democratic space. We cannot let a few bad apples provide a lever to restrict its use.
A partisan control over national TV and the National Assembly as well as restrictive laws to narrow the space of free speech and opinion conjures the spectre of an Orwellian 1984. This is certainly not the vision of Mauritius nor the ideals our parents fought for and won independence on.
It is becoming more and more evident to one and all that the fundamental problem with the country is its political class and their endless power driven political calculations. The problem is systemic. The political class cannot therefore be part of the solution. The status quo at the head of the main opposition parties despite the ignominious debacle suffered at the last two general elections basically comforts the reign of the ruling government. Mauritius cannot remain trapped in an Orwellian nightmare. The onus is therefore squarely on the people to break this stifling stranglehold and its narrow outlook to reignite the seminal battle of the people for a better socio-economic order, freedom of opinion, significantly improved prospects for the country and the inclusive prosperity of the multitude.