Navin Ramgoolam : Private life, public figure, public interest

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Although the Mauritian Constitution does not spell out the citizen’s right to privacy, this does not mean that the Mauritian citizen has no right to privacy. Whether a country has a written or an unwritten (like the UK) constitution, every citizen has an inherent right to privacy. Privacy is also classed as a right under the European Convention of Human Rights. Even though PM Ramgoolam is a public figure, the sanctity of his home and family must be respected. But if citizens have as Prime Minister or President or Mayor one who is strongly suspected as a wife beater or an adulterer or of corruption, the people have the right to be informed and it is up to the authorities to initiate their investigations.

Public interest weighed against expectation of privacy

The daily l’express got hold of a recording of a private party held in mid-June (2014) in Floréal in the home of Nandanee Soornack, a housewife turned Parti travailliste (PTr) activist turned divorcee turned multi-million business woman. But this was no ordinary party of an average Mauritian family enjoying themselves to the sounds and dances like sambas, salsas, segas, rock’n’roll, twist, waltz, mujras, bhangras or Bharatnatyam. It was a private party in Ms Soornack's home attended by PM Ramgoolam and in which he fully participated. When l’express obtained this footage, it decided to inform the people since it involved serious public issues. Nad Sivaramen told Mauritians that ‘‘Vous avez le droit de savoir” (l’express 16 August 2014).

Obviously, Ramgoolam is entitled and at liberty to have a drink, smoke his cigar, beat the djembe drum, sing and dance the sega and enjoy himself, but he was neither in the privacy of his own home nor on official function when leaders like British PM David Cameron and US President Barack Obama do have a drink and a dance. Ramgoolam was in the private home of PTr activist Nandanee Soornack who shot herself to fame when she had her political adversary Yogida Sawynaden arrested on 10th December 2011 (and Police Officers subsequently transferred) for having taken pictures of her when she was on active political duty for Ramgoolam’s PTr during Municipal elections. At the mid-June private party, Ramgoolam was drinking, smoking and dancing, not with his wife (who was absent), but with Nandanee Soornack who was alleged to have had an affair with a “high-profile politician”. Ms Soornack previously sought and obtained an interim injunction against l’express and Le Mauricien in January 2012, injunction later lifted except in the case of her minor child.

The media, in its role both as a broadcaster and a watchdog, is well within its right to scrutinize the private life of any public figure, be it a PM, a President, a Mayor, a celebrity, in the public interest, like in the following cases :

(1) The Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who fathered a child (unnamed for legal reasons) during an extramarital affair with Helen Macintyre, was also subject to investigative journalism

which was challenged in court, but Senior Judges held that the public has the right to know about Boris Johnson’s “brief adulterous affair” in which he fathered a child. On 20th May 2013, the Court of Appeal held that : “It is not in dispute that the legitimate public interest in the father’s character is an important factor to be weighed in the balance against the claimant’s expectation of privacy.”

‘‘The core information in this story, namely that the father had an adulterous affair with the mother, deceiving both his wife and the mother’s partner and that the claimant, born about nine months later, was likely to be the father’s child, was a public interest matter which the electorate was entitled to know when considering his fitness for high public office.”

(2) In June 2014, the European Court of Human Rights reversed a decision of a French Court which ordered Paris Match to pay damages to Prince Albert of Monaco for publishing a woman’s claim that the Prince was the father of her child (the Prince did eventually confess he was the father) as it breached the right to freedom of expression. The ECHR Judges criticized the French court for failing to make the “distinction between information which formed part of a debate of general interest and that which merely reported details of the Prince’s private life” (The Guardian, 12th June 2014).

Hence, in the circumstances, the private life of PM Ramgoolam is rightly scrutinized by the press in the public interest so the people may decide his “fitness for high public office”.

Newsagents intimidated

L’express therefore dedicated the issue of l’express-Dimanche of 17th August 2014 to the famous private party held at the home Ms Soornack with the attendance and participation of PM Ramgoolam. But it transpired that several men in squads around the country stormed newspaper kiosks and other newsagents, including supermarkets, to buy (even confiscate) the copies of l’express-Dimanche so they are not sold to the public. Readers are urging l’express to print further copies of the Sunday report on this important news item. Some are even talking about “PTR/MMM DICTATORSHIP” and “GESTAPO / TONTON MACOUTE” should the controversial PTr/MMM proposed alliance, which Ramgoolam and Bérenger are so assiduously working towards, becomes a reality and they win the next general elections.

Conclusion

It is well established that although every citizen has the right to privacy, the public interest must be weighed against the expectation of privacy when it concerns a public figure. Public figures are also regarded as role models. Contrary to what happened previously when Nandanee Soornack, who cannot be regarded as a public figure as spelt out in Resolution 1165 (1998) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the Right to Privacy, sought an interim injunction against l’express and Le Mauricien, Ms Soornack and her family are not the target here. But, the public figure PM Dr Navinchandra Ramgoolam certainly is, which explains why he said that he was “l’homme à abattre”. Ms Soornack is incidental to this matter of public interest due to her association with PM Ramgoolam.

Raj Meetarbhan, Chief Editor of l’express said the following in an interview on Radio Plus (19th August 2014) : “Grâce aux photos, nous avons démontré qu’une personne [meaning Nandanee Soornack] a des relations très proches avec le Premier ministre. Et dimanche, nous avons démontré qu’en six ans, cette personne a connu une ascension fulgurante dans le monde des affaires”. And, Mr Meetarbhan emphasised that in case of strong suspicions of corruption, the media “se doivent d’en faire état, pour que cela amène les institutions concernées à enquêter à ce propos”, and added that it is “notre mission, notre devoir d’en informer le public”. This mission is even more pressing as there is no real political opposition in the country since opposition leader Bérenger wants an alliance with PM Ramgoolam.

L’express is therefore right to report the attendance and participation of PM Ramgoolam at the private party held at Nandanee Soornack’s home, after all the scandal which rocked the whole country following the 10th December 2011 incident, and also justified in questioning how Ms Soornack could have metamorphosed from a very ordinary person with little education to a millionnairess in such a short span of time with so many government contracts in key sectors following her frolic in the corridors of power. Since PM Ramgoolam says his (private) life is an “open book”, may be he should also inform Mauritians how many such private parties he attends every year and in whose homes, and how many have also become millionnaires or millionnairesses?

M. Rafic SOORMALLY

LONDON

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