Out of 180 countries that appear on Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index for 2014, Mauritius is ranked 70th. That is eight places behind the 2013 report and 16 places behind the 2011/2012 report. The report is a means of measuring to what extent the country experiences freedom of press that is, without government hindrance, censorship, intimidation and the likes.
While our fall on the list may not be considerable taking into account that since 2009, we have been lingering between the 50 and 60th place rankings, it certainly begs to question the extent to which Mauritius claims it practices freedom of press. On paper, of course we have freedom of press, as is the case with so many things in this country, we look good on paper but fail to follow that through in reality.
The question of press freedom is that of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we have a certain amount of expression afforded to us but on the other we seem to need to do as told. Let me explain how it works. Pick up a job at any private radio broadcaster or press house and you are awarded the opportunity to write or broadcast what you wish to – provided it is credible, of public interest and has legitimate sources. The same though is not the case when it comes to the Mauritian Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). Or at least this is the way it appears. Maybe I have it wrong?
Legitimately (read: on paper), the MBC has as its objectives to “provide independent and impartial broadcasting services of information, education, culture and entertainment in the different languages spoken or taught in the country and ensure that its broadcasting services help toward the development of knowledge, sense of initiative, civic rights, duties and responsibilities of the population.”
Questionable since the man at the head of this empire, Dan Callikhan, is considered quite an intelligent man to the people whose circles he frequents. Sadly though this cannot be said of his public image with speculation around his leadership style being attributed to the ever-strong hold the Prime Minister’s Office has over the MBC, being under its aegis and all. Much criticism has even fallen on his shoulders, having to brush off nicknames like Hitler from the opposition leader turned Labour Party fan, Paul Bérenger, amongst others undoubtedly.
The public service broadcaster though holds many an illusion if it truly believes the local television programming offering is both impartial and helping towards the development of knowledge with popular public opinion that the channels are not worth the licence fee imposed on citizens, even if it is jazzed up digital broadcasting and all. Modern broadcasting success does not only come from the type of broadcasting service you give, but also what content you choose to make citizens endure through.
The reality is that back in the day when the MBC was the country’s only source of information, it could do as it pleased without any accountability simply because people did not know any better. Enter the age of Internet and mobile technology and you have people accessing their news and information from everywhere and anywhere except the MBC. It’s being overtaken, at a tremendous pace, by technology and people’s need to have information – they feel is credible – at their fingertips. However, there is still the need for the broadcaster, that is, when people need to find out important information about anything government-related.
One only needs to watch the daily news broadcasts whether in English, French, Hindi, Bhojpuri, or Creole to understand that in order to know what is happening across the entire island, you need to consult online or newspapers for a complete understanding as it always feels like there is something missing.
People will argue though that public service broadcasters are the same all over the world and for many countries that may well apply but then let’s look at a broadcaster like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the exact equivalent to what we have here in the form of the MBC, you find yourself asking how one broadcaster is deemed to be the leading newsroom of the world while the other has only ever managed to be the leading newsroom of the Prime Minister’s Office.
What about private broadcasting then? We don’t have to be subjected to the MBC’s programming (or lack of) schedule. Life is full of options, right? Sure, your choices are either not watching the MBC at all, finding all your information online in the form of Internet TV proliferating of late or ignoring the local scene completely and only watching satellite television. It does not seem balanced whichever way you look at it.
Private television may not be illegal in this country as per the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, but we haven’t seen any private television licences issued by the body. According to the IBA, “The Authority may require the applicant to furnish information which may be reasonably necessary in order to enable the Authority to determine whether the applicant is a fit and proper person to hold a licence under this Act or properly consider the application.” My guess is that no one has since been deemed fit and proper.
Perhaps the only way Mauritians can expect to watch decent news programming remains in the hands of the internet TV broadcasters like Defi Media, La Sentinelle, ION and the many more still to come which, until now, haven’t got any restrictions imposed. Though I am sure Internet censorship is top of mind on the many sworn to protect the legacy of the MBC and all its apparent glory.
I think, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the leadership strategy imposed on the MBC. Hearing from friends who either work in the organisation or have close relatives inside, there is no lack of skills within the walls of the MBC which leads me to think that the poor programming abilities are not due to that of its ill-equipped staff but rather the fact that the rules imposed on the staff are just so strict and non-negotiable that you are left with people who simply clock in and out, do as they are told and land up making absolutely no mark on the country they are ultimately serving.
The world and this country itself are overtaking the broadcaster, leaving it behind to operate in its out-dated manner while it at the same time fails to make use of its skills base – in the form of staff – who can essentially bring the organisation back up to receive the recognition and respect it should be worthy of.