LALIT welcomes the approach of Geoffrey Robertson who outlines strong protection for a free press and for freedom of expression as everyone’s right, while also putting high esteem on the truth and fairness in all the media.
Removing jail and criminal charges
By the Report’s proposal to scrap all the most unreasonable criminal provisions that impinge on freedom of the press, journalists and ordinary citizens would be liberated from the constant threat of jail or heavy fines for expressing themselves truthfully and in good faith.
Paradoxically, this same proposal will make it easier for people in general to criticize the media when it errs, because critics will no longer be able to be accused by the press of being “against free expression” when they criticize them. Criticism was often interpreted by the Press as exposing them to criminal charges, which it could do. So, this freeing up of the press provides a spin-off advantage to critics of particular articles in the Press, critics who, in turn, become part of the social control that is necessary as State control backs off. This is one of the results of Geoffrey Robertson’s approach, that is to say that “the best remedy for abuse of free speech is more free speech”.
So, this would represent a major change: to see the Publication of False News law, Sedition, Outrage against Religious Morality, Criminal Libel and similar archaic laws no longer on the statute books, and to see the Contempt laws overhauled.
LALIT, as a party, has suffered from the political use of these draconian laws against free expression so, as a party, we have an additional reason to welcome the proposals for freer laws. A few examples. One member was hounded out for “outrage against public and religious morality” for writing a novel, while another was charged with, and wrongly found guilty of, distributing supposedly “unsigned” booklets. Yet another was charged two years after a banal incident with “molesting a police officer” for supposedly telling an officer to “b.. f.., ale ” in a genuine stand-off when police came on to premises where a private meeting was held to plan a demonstration against George Bush who was due to visit Mauritius. Yet another member was charged over the same stand-off with calling a police officer a “moutouk”; we eventually discovered where the trumped-up charge came from: while screening their diary book entries to find a charge to lay so as to satisfy an order from above, they came up with a reference to the member differentiating between police officers by asking “Moustache la”, and wrongly reading their own hand-writing, charged her with calling an officer “Moutouk la” Their error became clear during trial, when we saw the Diary Book on which charges were based. So, the law on Molesting Police Officer may also need revisiting, at least inasmuch as it impinges on free expression. Another of our members was warned for “Contempt of Court” for a long, rather learned medical analysis of the evidence in the Judicial Inquiry into the death of Kaya, which led to the nation-wide uprising against police violence.
Laws that curtail free expression cause other problems; LALIT often suffers police harassment without charges ever being laid. This is for things like what we supposedly said about a political adversary in Government during a public speech. The law, by its existence on the statute books, becomes repression – without the judiciary ever knowing about it.
Freedom of Information Act
LALIT also welcomes a Freedom of Information Act along the lines proposed by Mr. Robertson, something we have always called for. This is, in fact, the lynch-pin of the Robertson Report. It will benefit all citizens and all opposition political parties, as well as reporters doing their work. The secretiveness of the post-colonial State is more a reflex than anything else and, for democratic space to be increased, the State’s workings need to be opened up to the people. Prime Minister Ramgoolam had, even before the Robertson Report, said he is not much in favour. LALIT urges all parties to support a real Freedom of Information Act.
Privacy v/s Covering-up for Influential People
While in Britain everyone was learning about the excesses of the News of the World scandals, in France people were learning about how their media actually covers up predatory behavior by hiding behind the concept of a sacrosanct “private life”. In Mauritius, we were exposed to both “excesses” i.e. too much and too little digging into public figures’ lives.
The Dominic Strauss Kahn case brought into the public eye how the media had denied the public information about this pubic personality’s predatory behavior. Not only were victims not taken seriously, but a journalist lost his radio job for doing a sketch on DSK’s impending visit necessitating the evacuation of all women staff. Once DSK was unmasked publicly, he suffered reasonable social punishment: he was fired, dropped as candidate for President, denounced by his party, and chucked out by his wife. Had his unethical behavior been made public earlier, dozens of women would have been saved a lot of suffering, and he, himself, might have changed his ways.
The women’s movement and, in particular, the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, has made a distinction between “privacy”, which demands protection, and a whole “private life”, which cannot and ought not be hidden wholesale.
LALIT agrees with this distinction. We would welcome its inclusion in a code of media ethics. Public figures cannot live a whole separate “private life” and expect it to be hidden. This kind of conspiracy of silence cannot be in the public interest. People only have “one life”, and in that life, while their privacy needs respect, this cannot extend to hiding a whole second “life”, including whole human beings. Here, one recalls the two mistresses of Francois Mitterand, who the press hid until after his death. These poor women were condemned by Media silence to live lives as living ghosts. The entire political establishment in Paris and all senior journalists knew about the women, and were wont to say “Tout le monde savait”, while willfully keeping the public in the dark by a conspiracy to mask hypocrisy.
In Francophile Mauritius, the first thing journalists learn on Media Ethics is the sacrosanct principle of the private lives of hommes politiques.
In LALIT, we believe that, as well as a duty to respect privacy, the media has a duty to expose the facts when an important personality is living a whole double life.
Navin Ramgoolam’s problem with the Press
What then is the problem in Mauritius? Why does the Prime Minister moan about the Press and his private life? We believe that it is precisely because the Press, taken as a whole, does in fact give “pardons” for the “private lives” of most “important” men, just as Pardoners in European Middle Ages dealt out Vatican “pardons”. The Press does, in fact, routinely cover up for the “inavouable” private lives of important men. We need not go into the “why” in this article. But, when any one man is singled out for exposure, especially if the timing has political significance, he is angry because there is political discrimination against him in the use of this weapon by the media. Of course, newspapers and radios do have, and can be expected to have, their own political agendas.
But, this problem of “press pardons” cannot be solved by laws, let alone repressive laws. Only a general Code of Ethics can diminish it. As it is now, there are editors who, at key moments, actually threaten politicians in blatant blackmail-style with exposing them for paying someone to use a cutter or for having “kept” a woman; some readers may know, or think they know, what these coded remarks refer to; others are completely in the dark. But the person targeted is meant to feel the threat. This kind of journalism, in turn, kindles a kind of rumour-mongering that is not healthy. This is another reason why we believe there should be a distinction between “privacy”, which needs protection, and a whole “private life” that should not be kept secret by a media conspiracy to hide the truth, and then which, in turn, permits of individual journalists to threaten to expose details piecemeal.
In LALIT, we also note that this “private life” problem, like others, often leads to women being singled out in the Press for the sins, so-to-speak, of men. This is an old macho game. The politician’s mistress is attacked. The woman “transfiz” is hounded out more than the men who bought her over. And not just by the Press. It is a symptom of macho leadership everywhere – in politics, in business, and indeed even in trade unions. But, a good Code of Conduct for the press could become part of the solution.
LALIT thinks that the three-tier regulation proposed in the Report would be helpful: an Ombudsperson (for people aggrieved by the press) who, with assessors, acts as a Media Commission, plus a more independent Media Trust. The idea is to give victims a speedy and inexpensive remedy without bringing down repression or undue punishment on journalists.
In LALIT, we know only too well the suffering the media causes for ordinary working people and poor or powerless people when journalists confuse a witness in a case with the accused charged with rape or murder, without having checked on the facts, often without any correction published let alone an apology.
Some Points left out of the Report
The report does not go into ways to decrease the endemic collusion between the police and journalists. Because journalists need information from the police, they in turn often cover for police officers who, for example, use violence against detainees. In the Code of Ethics, there could thus be mention of ethical reporting on police use of violence in cells, and after arrests. JUSTICE Association Against Violence by Officers of the State has proposed a “protocol” for professionals, including one for journalists, in reporting on deaths and injuries in detention.
Also significant is the fact that the Report does not go into all the levels of bias in the Press and Media, which need to be addressed in a Code of Conduct:
1. Individual newspapers and radio stations are private businesses, and as such have an interest in their profits, and in profits in general; in the case of the MBC, it has an interest in currying favour with the Government of the day. These bring inherent bias into our media and need to be constantly remembered.
2. Business interests of the company running a newspaper or radio, for example shares in private health or education companies, or financement by embassies or boss’s organizations, should be made clear.
3. The Press, funded largely as it is by private advertisements, comes under pressure from these powerful elements in society at key moments – both in news reporting and in analysis. Government ads also put pressure on editorial lines.
4. Editorial comment is often mixed in with the facts, sometimes consciously other times because of class or other prejudice.
5. Individual bias of reporters and editors, their past or future roles as press attaches, as well as even acts of petty vengeance, can and do also distort reporting.
For the first time, the debate can now begin to get right to the heart of media ethics. For that alone, the Report is salutatory.
21 April, 2013