Freedom of Expression
On 17th October, Dharmanand Dooharika, editor of the weekly Samedi Plus was sentenced to three months imprisonment for publishing, on 14th August 2010, the views of Dev Hurnam who questioned the independence of a supreme court judge. The editor was accused of “publicly scandalising the supreme court” and “bringing the administration of justice into disrepute”. He was denied bail pending appeal and incarcerated on 20th October in the main prison. (A full report has been prepared by the Committee to Protect journalists). On 31st October, the same day that we made intercession to the President on his behalf, the DPP performed a u-turn and removed his objection to bail.
This development followed a series of threats by the Prime Minister against critics within the private media. In addition he ordered that no public servant communicate with the media without first seeking permission. This edict included staff of the University of Mauritius. The result is that freedom of expression has been severely curtailed in that newspapers and radios are afraid to publish or broadcast the opinions of individual citizens. The evidence of this is the the refusal of any media organisation to publish our open letters and journalistic investigations. Moreover, the website of the daily Defi Quotidien has the warning to anyone wishing to comment on their articles that they have zero tolerance for anything that might be considered defamatory. Who makes the judgement? This is in contrast to one of our own letters that they published in their physical paper in 2010 that purposely invites the accusations of scandalising the court to raise awareness of outrageous abuses of procedures that we personally experienced as we reported on Reader Supported News.
Intimidation of the media can be traced back to the days before general election in 2000 when the offices two newspapers were besieged by agents of the same Prime Minister (as reported by CPJ), who subsequently lost. After regaining power in 2005, he is alleged to have threatened one media group for supporting the opposition. Subsequently, the government stopped publishing notices in one of its papers, banned their purchase for government offices and the national airline and denied its journalists access to public events. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative reportedthat on 20th November 2007, the same Prime Minister announced to the National Assembly his desire to institute stricter defamation laws following the arrest of three journalists for reporting potential corruption by a police officer.
Rule of law
Clearly it is becoming more difficult to determine the degree deterioration of the sovereignty of the law from the media. However, several police officers have reported to us that their investigations have been severely obstructed due to “political interference”. Typically, when a suspected criminal is being investigated by officers, he makes a phone call and shortly afterwards the officers are told by their superiors to leave him alone.
The experience of one of our directors confirms this. He reported receiving threats from a leader of an unofficial NGO and reported him to the police. However, the threats continued both from the leader and his deputies who were even audacious enough to confront him in person. Investigations revealed that the police were told to investigate the original complaint as slowly as possible. It transpires that the leaders father is the Chairman of the Road Development Authority – a politically appointed position – and personal friend of the Prime Minister.
In a separate incident, the same Director was assaulted by a number of staff of a company belonging to the family of one of the Prime Minister’s main supporters. He asked the police to intervene but they subsequently left the scene after being spoken to by owner of the company. The next day the Director was told by the police to stay away from the owner obviously intimidating him against pressing charges. Indeed it has proved impossible to find a police station willing to record his complaint.
Appeals to the Commissioner of Police have fallen on deaf ears and the media refused to publish either story. Finally, on 22nd December we wrote to the Chief Justice for permission to privately prosecute the Commissioner of Police for perverting the course of justice and hence putting our Director’s life in danger. To date we have received no reply.
Prime Minister implicated in a death in custody
A bizarre series of events raised our curiosity in July and August. According to one newspaper, on 17th July, Marie France Bigaignon reported the theft of a watch, suspecting it was her husband. On 25th July the husband confessed to the police that he had stolen the watch and sold it to one Kumar Ramdany. The latter was arrested and both men were charged and held on remand in a police station. On 30th July Kumar Ramdany was found dead in his cell, apparently having committed suicide by hanging himself.
On 12th August, the ICT Authority was reported to have made a complaint to the police against one Harish Boodhoo (a former politician) for making a series of defamatory remarks against the Prime Minister on the social networking site facebook. Amongst other things, his letter states that he had written in a previous letter, dated 25th July, that “in a private bungalow at Post Lafayette…a top Minister was robbed and abused”. He later identifies the victim as the Prime Minister.
Shockingly, he associates the death of Kumar Ramdany with the theft. The Prime Minister is reported to have responded to the allegations by revealing a Rolex watch on his wrist at a press conference. The leader of a minor opposition party is also reported as repeatedly alleging that Kumar Ramdany had been arrested in possession of a Rolex watch stolen from the Prime Minister’s bungalow.
The matter came up again in November during the National Assembly’s Private Notice Questions, when the Leader and other members of the opposition are reported to have virtually interrogated the Prime Minister on alleged discrepancies in the case. These included conflicting accounts of when the watch found on Kumar Ramdany was stolen and grey areas surrounding the manner of the suicide and how the body was found. According to another account, the Prime Minister was unable to give a convincing answer of how Kumar Ramdany had managed to hang himself since he was observed lying on the floor before the cloth that he had apparently used was cut from the door so that the police could gain access to his cell.
We have been encouraged by police officers to conduct our own investigations into the matter. We interviewed someone who, while staying at the Prime Minister’s private bungalow, had been mugged by a gang who took his mobile phone and jewellery. Fishermen from the region confirmed that a group of thieves does indeed operate in the area. One person told us he had heard directly from the members of the gang that they had robbed the Prime Minister, sexually abused him and taken photographs of the act. A totally independent person alleged that the Leader of the Opposition was in possession of at least one of the photographs.
We tried to contact Jane Maclean, hired by the Mauritian government to be Director of its Forensic Science Laboratory, and who is reported to have left Mauritius a year later to take up a post with the Metropolitan police. However, the Director of Public Affairs informed us that she “is unavailable for interview on matters outside the Met’s jurisdiction”. However, an mutual acquaintance who spoke to her just before he departure reported that she was “disgusted with the Mauritian authorities”. Whether this is to do with the death in police custody of Kumar Ramdany, we can only speculate.