Here are the slides I had prepared for my paper presentation at the Conference “Mauritius after 50 Years of Independence: Charting the Way Forward” which was held from 28 to 30 June 2017 at the University of Mauritius in collaboration with the Mauritius Research Council.
1. Why do we need freedom of information?
Freedom of information is a key ingredient of any country which purports to be a democracy. Having access to reliable information which is as complete as possible allows people to make rational decisions (e.g. who to vote for, which policies to support). FOI also deters political decision-makers from indulging in corrupt acts as these could be more easily detected and exposed in the public sphere.
2. What should it consist of?
Freedom of information encompasses press freedom but is not limited to this. The media are deemed to be important facilitators in the public sphere, like some sort of “intellectuals within the city”. In this tech-oriented world, FOI means giving access to all government files which are of public interest (excluding rare cases of national security issues). More importantly, we should ensure that such data is accessible in open formats which allow media people as well as ordinary citizens to scrutinise and analyse them.
3. Who does it benefit?
Democracy. All citizens.
4. How does it work abroad?
There are around 90 countries which have some form of FOI (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_information_laws_by_country). Normally, this means that any citizen should be able to either consult or get a copy of documents from public administrations. As Robertson explained in his preliminary report, it’s a pretty complex administration and it would take time to implement FOI if the law is indeed proposed and accepted. You would need to train civil servants and review the whole information system. And in some countries, FOI legislation has loopholes or is not necessarily well implemented for all sorts of reasons (technical issues, bureaucracy, obfuscation, etc) . Nevertheless, as it’s an important right in a democracy, we need to start working on it in Mauritius. Unfortunately, none of our politicians are currently committed to propose and implement FOI as it goes against their DNA. Civil society should lobby for it.
5. How will the people benefit from it?
With FOI, investigative reporting and detection of corruption becomes easier. There is more transparency on how public money (i.e. taxpayers’ money) is used. Hopefully, this should lead to more efficiency.
6. How does its absence refrain liberty and democracy?
Veils of secrecy always lead to even the most ethical persons to be prone to corruption once in power. FOI means more accountability and thus brings us nearer to the real definition of democracy (government by the people for the people).
7. Should we repeal the Official Secrecy Act?
FOI cannot exist if the Official Secrets Act and the Civil Service Manual, which forbids communication to the public and the press without higher authorisation, remain as they are. They are incompatible. Obviously, there are provisions for issues such as national security or trade secrets which would stay. But overall, the Official Secrets Act needs to be reviewed to remove the blanket culture of secrecy.
In an episode of Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey states that the Official Secrets Act is “not there to protect secrets, but to protect officials”. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Official_Secrets_Act)
Questions by Jameela Jadoo
This interview was done for News on Sunday in May 2014
Enhancing Democratic Systems: The Media in Mauritius
A UNESCO/UOM Dialogue Session
Venue: University of Mauritius – 16 & 17th September 2010
Day 1: Thursday 16th September (ELT2 – Engineering Tower)
13.30 – 14.00 Registration
14.00 – 14.05 Welcome Remarks – Dean FSSH
14.05 – 14.15 UNESCO Representative
14.15 – 14.20 Ag Vice Chancellor, UOM
14.20 – 15.00 Keynote address: Mr Amadou Mahtar Ba – CEO African Media Initiative
15.00 – 15.15 Floor Discussion
15.15 – 15.30 Tea Break
Session 1: Freedom, Media and Democracy
Chair: Ibrahim Koodoruth, UOM
15.30 – 15.45 Constitutional and Legal Frameworks: Opportunities and Constraints for the Media Industry – Maneesh Gobin
15.45 – 16.15 Freedom and Transparency: A Journalistic Appreciation – Subash Gobine and Gilbert Ahnee
16.15 – 16.30 Enlarging the Mauritian Democratic Space: Creating an Informed Citizenry – Catherine Boudet
16.30 – 17.00 Floor Discussion
Day 2: Friday 17th September (LT1 -NAC)
Session 2: Media Systems and Policies
(i) Chair: Amadou Mahtar Ba – African Media Initiative
9.30 – 9.45 Integrity of Public Institutions: The Case of the MBC – Dan Callikhan
9.45 – 10.00 Private Radio: Serving Public or Commercial Interest – Striking the Right Balance – Abdoollah Earally
10.00 – 10.15 21st Century Broadcasting: The Need to Revisit and Reinvent Established Systems – Roukaya Kasenally
10h15 – 10.30 Floor Discussion
(ii) Chair: Roukaya Kasenally – UOM
10.30 – 10.45 The Role of Regulation – Gilbert Ithier – IBA
10.45 – 11.00 Experiments in Self Regulation: The NEPA Code of Conduct – Lindsay Rivière
11.00 – 11.15 State or Self Regulation: The Search for Common Ground – Christina Chan-Meetoo
11h15 – 11h30 Floor Discussion
11h30 – 11h45 Tea Break
Session 3: Media, Politics and Democracy
Chair: Sheila Bunwaree – UOM
11.45 – 12.15 Mainstream Political Parties and the Media: Cehl Meeah (FSM ), Steven Obeegadoo (MMM), Nita Deerpalsing (LP)
12.15 – 12.35 Extra-parliamentary Dynamics and the Media: Ashok Subron and Nilen Vencadasamy
12.35 – 12.50 The Media and the notion of ‘Free and Fair’ Elections – Mayila Paroomal
12.50 – 13.10 Floor Discussion
13.10 – 13.40 Lunch
Session 4: Citizens and the Media
Chair: Caroline Ng Tseung Wong – UOM
13.40 – 13.55 New Spaces, New Challenges: The Relevance of Regulation – Trilock Dwarka
13.55 – 14.15 The Advent of Digital Content: Experiences in Online Journalism – Rabin Bhujun and Avinash Meetoo
14.15 – 14.30 The Emerging Digital Environment: Opportunities and Constraints – Azhagan Chenganna
14.30 – 15.00: Floor Discussion
15.00 – 15.15: Tea Break
Session 5: Challenges to the Journalism Trade: Training and Professionalism
Chair: Christina Chan Meetoo
15.15 – 16.15 Round Table: Kiran Ramsahye, Jean-Claude de L’Estrac, Henri Marimootoo, Axcel Cheney and Jean-Luc Emile
16.15 – 16.45 Floor Discussion
16.45 – 17.00 Concluding Remarks and Vote of Thanks
Why do I have this uneasy feeling that we ordinary people are caught in the middle of a serious egocentric war between our power elites? That our democracy, though good in comparison with other nations on the continent, direly needs to be rebooted? That the system seems clogged with viruses?
Latest episode in the saga: the Sentinelle vs. Government tug of war with the decision by Pravind Jugnauth (DPM, Minister of Finance and MSM leader) to bar access from his press conference in the government house to all journalists from L’express and 5 Plus Dimanche (of the Sentinelle group) and from Radio One (of Viva Voce company which is partly owned and managed by La Sentinelle).
There has been an avalanche of articles in L´express which have traced back the punitive actions against the media group to 2006, with the advertisement boycotts from government and parastatal agencies, then with the tense relationship with the MSM which is now in alliance with the Labour party, then with the coverage of elections this year. It is a very complex affair which intertwines personal conflicts (Jean Claude de L’Estrac and Raj Meetarbhan vs. Navin Ramgoolam and Pravind Jugnauth) together with institutional (Sentinelle vs Government and its agencies, private sector vs government) and national inter-ethnic dimensions (Franco/Creoles vs. Hindus). This is where it becomes dangerous as we ordinary people are called upon to take sides without being given the full picture.
What is it that went sour in the relationship between the boss of L’express and the PM? In fact, how come they had such an intimate relationship at all? Why is the MSM so angry against JCDL and what does JCDL have to hide about the Jugnauths? There are so many questions to be asked and it looks like we will not be getting answers soon.
Personally, I am not taking anyone’s side. Rather I am taking the side of democracy. And I feel that both parties have done wrong to our democracy. On the one hand, L’express did not provide neutral and independent coverage of elections (just like Le Matinal and Le Dimanche). On the other, the Labour Party/MSM alliance has used its authority to try to stifle the private press (just like the MMM did in the past).
But, government has gone too far this time. Banning journalists from a press conference is a direct attack to press freedom. I hope this does not go any further and that they will recollect their senses and stop this escalation…
Hereunder a collection of links to articles which were published in the written press recently:
– Ce que je sais by Jean Claude de l’Estrac
– Ramgoolam, pile et face by JCDL
– Délits d’opinion by JCDL
– Faux démocrates by Raj Meetarbhan
– Boycott de la presse : Navin Ramgoolam répond au Dr Philippe Forget
– Cette grande presse partisane… by Subash Gobine
– Maladresses by SG
– Boycott ? by Kiran Ramsahaye
– Le Mauricien Opinion: Nous condamnons…
– Week-End Opinions : Délire liberticide et Ça sent la banane…
– Mauritius Times: Freedom of Expression and Media Censorship
– NewsNow: Did I hear you say Mobutu? by Sydney Selvon
Addendum: list of publications whose editors/columnists have condemned the press conference ban (please let me know if the list is incomplete):
– Le Mauricien
– Samedi Plus
– Business Magazine
– Mauritius Times
– Le Défi