Ashok Beeharry, new president of the Media Trust and career journalist with the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation, pleads for a self-regulatory body operated by the press with administrative and logistical support from the authorities. He also wants an upward revision of the Media Trust's budget, which is Rs 2.5 million per year, to further contribute to the necessary professionalization of the media.

You were appointed chairman of the Media Trust at the beginning of February. Under what sign do you place your mandate?
Consolidate what has been learned to move forward better by trying to think outside the box through new ideas, and this within consensus. It is therefore under the sign of continuity, but with an innovative approach, as much as can be done, given the new requirements in an ultra-dynamic context where the press has already been experiencing profound changes for several years, not to say a real transformation.

If the rudiments and fundamentals of the profession remain the same, what I call the “parajournalistic” or “metajournalistic” aspects, in the literal and not scholarly or philosophical sense, that is to say the manner and set of methods of journalistic practice, continue to evolve in a dazzling manner. This has a considerable impact on the exercise of the professional function.

It is therefore important to be able to help better equip and guide our journalists. The profession has become considerably younger in recent times, as the convergence of technologies intervenes directly in daily life. We want to help restore or reinstate the prestige but also the rigor of the past when journalism, in Mauritius as elsewhere, was perceived as a true priesthood.

What are your priorities ?
Our priorities arise from our statutory specifications, in this case section 4 of the Media Trust Act 1994 which focuses on the training of journalists and other media professionals. It is simply about capacity building and the development of basic and advanced skills, in all directions.

For this, we need resources, significant resources! Therefore, the top priority for the Media Trust Board, which has just been reconstituted, is to identify, find and even negotiate funding to be able to achieve our objectives and ambitions.

Currently the budget that the government allocates to the Media Trust is Rs 2.5 million, of which 60% to 70% goes towards salaries, administrative costs and other bills. We also benefit from financial support from the French Embassy through the French Institute of Mauritius. We rely heavily on partners: ministries and public authorities, non-governmental organizations, diplomatic missions and other organizations from different sectors for programs, projects and training activities.

We must therefore find, excuse this term, financial, but also human and technological resources, which would allow us to formulate a strategy with an executable action plan over at least two years. We have already set up a Board subcommittee to work on ideas and proposals.

We would like to gather input from the management and chief editors of the press as a whole. We therefore wish to quickly meet their representatives, but also the groups or associations of journalists/photographers/videographers/image reporting journalists…. We want to listen to the profession so as to be able to respond to needs and expectations.

Is it time to overhaul the Media Trust by amending the law to give it more powers? If so, what powers should it have?
Should the Media Trust be given more powers? The question remains… Personally, I sincerely believe that additional powers will not further facilitate our primary mission. On the other hand, the legislation, which dates back around twenty years, absolutely must be dusted off to better reflect the remodeling of the media landscape, eliminate administrative hassles, expand the operational margin and facilitate the implementation of our projects.

With this now imperative in mind, it is necessary to review the composition of the Board so that the different media that make up the press today are adequately represented, in addition to the ex officio members. I am not talking about titles because the members who come from them do not represent them within the Board. They represent the profession, such as editors, journalists, reporters, etc.

Adequate representation means public radio and television service, radio stations and other private operators, the written press, digital platforms, the specialized press, etc. Good media representation will be an important step in the right direction for better support for the aims and operation of the Media Trust. We will establish a second subcommittee of the Board to work on proposals which will be presented to the Office of the Prime Minister under whose administrative supervision we operate.

Thus, the young person could say to himself that, for lack of other outlets, I am trying myself while press owners are tempted to seize the opportunity of guinea pigs within the reach of the impoverished editorial staff in recent years! Here’s where the problem lies!”

Some are starting to talk about the need for a Media Commission. What do you think of the creation of a regulatory body for the press, more particularly the written press?
We have been talking about the need or the importance of a Press Council or a Media Commission for ages in Mauritius. There has never been a consensus among journalists in Mauritius and I believe that the situation has hardly changed! This issue, in my opinion, does not fall directly within the remit of the Media Trust or perhaps just on the border.

Some believe that sections 4(e), 6 and 10 of the Media Trust Act may lead the Media Trust to look into this. An attempt was made in the past, but it ended in failure due to lack of agreement. Personally, I have for a long time had reservations about the need for such a body given its effectiveness in other countries.

But in recent years, my thinking has evolved. I now think that the press must be able to regulate itself. We journalists are not above everything. We exercise a noble and exciting profession, so crucial for society, but we also have accountability to our audiences!

So, today I say yes to a self-regulatory body operated by the press with the administrative and logistical support of the authorities, in an advantageous approach which tends to give priority to ethics, principles, standards and values ​​common to journalists, whatever the editorial lines. But this initiative must, as many, including elders, wish, be carried out by the journalists themselves. The Media Trust is prepared to provide the assistance required strictly within the framework of its regulatory objectives.

Faced with new media challenges, how important is it to have fully trained journalists?
There is absolutely no other way… Practical and cutting-edge training, which responds to realities, according to current needs, beyond academic or university learning, has become more than ever an essential element for journalists today for several obvious reasons.

I said it earlier. There is the phenomenon of rejuvenation against a backdrop of radical evolution while the fundamentals do not change, however beneficial it may be, which requires well-thought-out and effective supervision and support. Perhaps there is a lack of vocation these days. We can believe that journalism is a laboratory, that the journalist is “experimentable”.

Thus, the young person could say to himself that, for lack of other outlets, I am trying myself while press owners are tempted to seize the opportunity of guinea pigs within the reach of the impoverished editorial staff in recent years! Here’s where the problem lies! It is essential to professionalize the profession, first in terms of recruitment, then through investments in different forms in training.

Only sustained and systematic training programs can promote the development of good mastery of writing, techniques and ethics, as well as develop and refine journalistic qualities. Journalism is both an art and a science. You have to be able to be creative while respecting the rules. And this is learned along the way…

“The legal framework is not protective for journalists,” notes Reporters Without Borders in its 2023 report. Certain laws inherited from the colonial era, such as the Official Secrets Act, are still in force, and civil servants who would provide sensitive information to journalists is subject to sanctions. Isn't it high time to amend the law to grant more freedom to the press?
I am responding to you in my capacity as a journalist without further consideration. Let's be honest; freedom of the press is part of the country's democratic tradition. We have a vibrant press in Mauritius, beyond the political, socio-cultural and economic pressures that all media suffer without distinction.

Politicians have their agenda in opposition as well as in power. The conflictual relations, without falling into confrontation, between the press and politicians and other socio-economic actors are therefore natural, I would say. There are undoubtedly possibilities, not to mention the duty, to improve the framework in which journalists operate and further facilitate their work.

Based on my experience, I personally support a Freedom of Information Act or a Right to Information Act. This would, to a large extent, facilitate the journalist's work. The authorities have expressed strong reservations, but I think we can find a solution through dialogue…

It is also important to say it: we, journalists, must fully assume our responsibilities and use our freedom responsibly. It is, as we say in English, a “balancing act”: knowing how to navigate, seeking the balance between freedom and responsibility.

The best protection that can be given to a journalist in a democratic society can only come from himself. Professional solidarity must not obliterate the notion of responsibility and answerability towards different audiences. This is how – by fulfilling our duties professionally – we will contribute to safeguarding our rights and the dignity of the profession.

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