Filtering news for political stability
Ahnee relates the Mauritius experience

By William Walker
Stabroek News
May 7, 2000

There can arise a time when the need to preserve the stability of a nation overrides an editor's commitment to deliver news.

This was the very real dilemma faced by Gilbert Ahnee, editor of the newspaper Le Maurincien on the island of Mauritius when in February of 1999 his multi-cultural society with a similar racial composition to Guyana, faced possible civil war arising from the death in police custody of a popular creole singer. Ahnee flew halfway around the world to tell his story at the Third Annual Caribbean Media Conference yesterday.

Ahnee said Mauritian society had evolved from colonialism into one "dominated by the Hindus in the political field, the Euro-Mauritians in business and the mixed blood francophone bourgeoisie in a publication sector that carries a large influence."

What followed the death of the creole singer was initially rioting by the poor creole underclass directed against the police, but this soon spread to inter racial clashes resulting in the death of four persons.

Ahnee recounted that during the four days of "living dangerously" his newspaper was forced to filter incidents so as to avoid inciting further racial violence.

Ahnee: "I had to tell my journalists 'news value is no more the rule of the game.' There was a dangerous fire to try to help to extinguish and some stories, excitingly newsworthy in a different context, had to be withheld... even checking with reliable sources was not enough. Whatever we published had been personally witnessed by the journalist writing the story."

Ahnee recalled that his editorials during those times "always advocated each and everyone's equal constitutional rights, they condemned violence and they were based on an outright reject of racism and communalism."

Ahnee said that in the wake of the riots there were complaints from extremists and "decent people swayed by their emotions," about his newspaper's position but "ultimately the Mauritian society showed its resilience; quite a few of those who had expressed suspicion towards the press reviewed their position, bound to admit that however criticised our press had been, they could not do without ...this platform for their own free expression."

Ahnee concluded "newspapers cannot be content with supporting a cold intellectual, impersonal secular policy. History has invested us with responsibilities in the process of social appeasement... Favouring societal multi-culturalism, even helping cultural cross fertilization is a very promising mission, its remit in our multi-ethnic societies, going much beyond the "peace-saving" issue. And I humbly submit that if our papers were able to honour this ideal, they would positively contribute to redefine the civilisation we will bequeath to our children."

Panellist Selwyn Ryan in responding to Ahnee's presentation observed that for multi-ethnic societies "even when you domesticate a problem... a foolish incident can reopen scars thought to be healed." He warned media operators to guard against unconscious bias be it based on class, urban over country or the more obvious racial charge.

Panellist Dr Prem Misir concluded that people in multi-ethnic societies "have more similarities than differences." He also took the opportunity to criticise Stabroek News for what he called its "score card" policy towards publishing letters offering different ethnic views. Misir who seems to spend much time studying Guyana's leading newspaper volunteered to go through the letter pages with a fine tooth comb if the newspaper were to provide the funds!

In reply David de Caires, editor-in-chief of the newspaper and the person instrumental in making this particular topic a part of the conference, defended his paper's publication of letters that may be deemed insensitive, despite his reservations over the years. de Caires would later point out, in recalling the 17th century poet John Milton's defence of his banned pamphlet, that censorship to some extent patronises the readership. "Who are we to think we are more intelligent than our readers?"

He was supported by Ryan who deemed that "If you silence views in one way they come out in another form which becomes unmanageable."

Ahnee said publication of extreme points of view depended on how they were expressed and whether they were designed to hurt people.

And delegate Neville Duncan added that he "would certainly not want to recommend the suppression of extreme views. "

Journalists urged to push boundaries of press freedom

Harassment of a free press is not always violent but often takes the form of financial pressure on those publishers critical of a government.

However Mark Robinson, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Press Union, in addressing the Third Annual Caribbean Media Conference yesterday, noted the sad fact that last year 87 journalists were killed doing their job. In a rallying cry to the faithful he said, "journalists must always be pushing the boundaries of press freedom," through responsible investigative journalism with special emphasis on uncovering corruption.

Robinson warned that the media must be prepared for harsh reprisals. He said governments worldwide, including those in Jamaica and Trinidad were constantly pushing legislation to control freedom of expression and much of this poorly prepared law had a chilling effect on the media's ability to investigate.

On top of this, governments were harassing their media critics through various covert tactics including legal entanglement, spurious tax audits, withholding of advertising and controlling newsprint. Robinson noted that these quiet activities, though not as headline grabbing as violence, were equally effective in silencing voices of dissent.

A simple thing as a publishing licence that could be withdrawn within 24 hours as in Malaysia had compromised the independent papers' ability to report freely on government-related stories. "The battle has to be fought on a wide front."

Robinson was particularly hard on Zimbabwe's recent attempts to silence the independent paper, the Post. He thought it ironic that Zimbabwe's so-called democratically elected government could curb press freedom while in Pakistan, a military dictatorship, press censorship had diminished considerably since last year's coup.

Robinson was no fan of government-imposed regulation. He believed in the media setting their own standards and being answerable to the public through such organisations as the UK Press Complaints Commission, which, avoiding messy legal trials, addressed complaints expeditiously.

Panellist David Granger said that while we may have press freedom in this country, the state media apparatus of radio, newspaper and television continued to dominate. He recalled the recent Prince of Wales' visit to the interior when enterprising Amerindians flipped their signs of welcome into signs of protest. None of this was reported in the state media, Granger said.

Views from the floor, managed by moderator Wyovlyn Gager of the Jamaica Gleaner, included delegate George John of the Media Association of Trinidad observing that "media freedom is inextricably linked to the training of journalists."

A journalist from Grenada told of how the Prime Minister of his country had many lawsuits against journalists and had miraculously managed to have them leap frog through a backlogged court system.

This caused a call for journalistic solidarity. Journalists of the region unite! Robinson thought this could be done by editors keeping in touch over the internet but he had underestimated the Caribbean love for a committee. The "man in blue" Cecil Griffith favoured comrades creating a document on press freedoms for their own salvation. Allelujah!

"Populist" Jamaican, Barbara Gould told everyone to stop being so smug and listen to the people's views on whether they were doing a good job at relating the news. She said that for the next conference real people should be brought in to give the journalists an earful.

Capturing the intellectual high ground, Granger concluded that the discussion ultimately centred around the classic question of whether freedom of expression was a right of the individual or a gift from the government. Surely no one in the room would believe it was the latter. (William Walker)