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Friday, 15 February 2013 07:00

Freedom of expression and privacy: between transparency and Knowledge

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Last week, the news focus was the verdict of Justice Balancy and the publication of HSC results. The Balancy judgment advocates the primacy of the constitutional right to freedom of speech over privacy, in matters relating to public interest. The HSC results highlighted the good performance of ‘regional’ colleges and showed that there is no fatality in education.
Both events marked a forward step for our democracy because, though invisible to many, they foster a trend that could tomorrow become the norm. Namely, a society dominated by transparency and the democratisation of knowledge.

Experts, lawyers and teachers may argue endlessly over the merits of the Balancy judgment or on our educational system, but the basic fact remains that it will be a serious mistake to think that freedom of expression is a synonym for the press or that education stops at the results and does not imply generalisation of knowledge.

The obsession that some have about the press, or to which the latter relates itself, tends to overshadow the fact that freedom of expression is not the monopoly of this channel of communication. Apart from the traditional means of mass communication (newspapers, radio, television), today there are other modes of communication that are much richer because they are instant and interactive, through which everyone can deliver information and opinion.

The existence of social media, like Facebook, demonstrates that it is virtually impossible to control the flow of information or opinion engulfing the communication bazaar. However much a totalitarian government would be tempted to restrict traditional media (almost institutionalised as they operate within a legal framework), it runs the risk of being countered on the Net by an avalanche of speculations. Mauritius Telecom can control mobile phones, but no authority can control gossiping. We may restrict the speech of a politician or a journalist, but cannot censor street mongering.

In Mauritius, many weaknesses may be attributed to the press. These include lingering prejudices of the years 60/70/80 that persist in some writings, even as the economy and (increasingly) freedom and leisure take prominence over the concerns of the post-free education generations. But none of our media groups could be compared to the Sun or the defunct British News of the World. There are no paparazzi or phone hacking in the local press.

On the contrary, newsrooms feel their phones are tapped. The ‘human stories’ spread in the ‘fait divers’ pages come from courts or crimes reported to the police (accidents, sexual crimes, unusual cases). The press simply plays its mirror role in society. In 100 years or a thousand years, when researchers will explore what the Mauritian society was like in the early 21st century, their interest would not be limited to who the President was, but rather what were the social woes of the time.

Generally, the institutionalised press does not poke into the private lives of people, unless the people themselves want to be in the news. The Soornack case and the affidavits concerning her divorce were known facts in press circles for years, yet no responsible newspaper attached any importance to them. Until the day when the lady exposed herself in the public arena and a politician (not even a journalist), when quizzed, gave a defensive reaction in his police statement by revealing things about her. If the essence of the Balancy judgment relates to the constitutional right to freedom of speech over privacy in cases involving the public interest, it must also be emphasised that this right is primarily for the citizen and is not a monopoly of the press. And in this era of Social Media, with tools to transmit and receive digital information (laptops, tablets, mobiles), it is the citizen who is empowered in the reaffirmation of this right to freedom of expression. It is also up to him to decide how he should use this right responsibly so as not to denigrate and defame others.

No Media Law, let alone any restrictive legislation, would be a solution to this issue. Upstream, only a policy of transparency from the authorities can prevent inaccuracies sometimes found in the press (and palavers that are transmitted elsewhere) due to, among other things, the absence of a Right to Information Act. Downstream, the democratisation of education and continuous access to knowledge should make people wiser or more responsible about what they write or say. In all cases, they will be better equipped to discern who is defending the interests of whom.

However, halting the course of progress, both on human and citizens’ rights as well as their empowerment via new technology, through laws or repressive measures, is tantamount to chasing the wind. Western democracies have long understood that they had more to fear from civil society organisations like Amnesty, Greenpeace or the Occupy Movement, rather than the press.

In Mauritius, young Jeff Lingaya has achieved what the press altogether couldn’t. Sure, the press trumpeted his action, but he has also relied on Facebook, activists and street communication. Ultimately, intelligent leaders understand that the best policy is not to swim against the current, but to move the progress by bearing in mind the new realities of the world.
Last modified on Friday, 15 February 2013 07:01
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