Weekly speaks to Roukaya Kasenally, CEO at African Media Initiative, for her take on the handling of the Covid-19 crisis in the country. She shares her views on the monopolisation of the communication and management of the health crisis by the government and its select few and is scathing in her view of the role of the MBC. She also comments on the ability of the Legislature to act as an oversight of the Executive.
There was a lot of talk about the botched communication exercise around the Chagos archipelago on the UN map. Was it a well-intended exercise that backfired or a diversion that worked?
In normal times, Chagos would and should have made news headlines as it is directly linked to Mauritius’ sovereignty. However, we are not living in normal times. The pandemic has changed this and our new normalcy revolves around the Covid-19 news story. In fact, when talking to friends from overseas, be they journalists or researchers, the biggest story shaping their current reality is Covid-19. After more than 50 days under strict lockdown, it would not be untrue or exaggerated to say that every Mauritian citizen was expecting the prime minister to make a statement or provide details on the post-lockdown that was to happen as from 1 June. Instead, we were served a four-minute intervention by the prime minister that the United Nations map now classifies Chagos as Mauritian territory! This was done without referring to the state of Covid-19 on the island. Was it done to create a feel-good factor? Some exciting news in a sea of Covid-19 fatigue? Was this done for sheer propaganda? Was is it done as a mere diversion? My personal take on this is that despite Chagos being key to our sovereignty, at that time and moment it was not what the Mauritian citizen was expecting to hear!
What is your evaluation of the government’s communication strategy around Covid-19 in general?
Communication and information during times of crisis are extremely important as their regular, balanced and credible flow can help manage a crisis with the aim to reassure the population that the authorities are on top of the problem. Over the two-and-a-half months that the country has been in lockdown, there has been a number of shortcomings which I believe have contributed to a combined state of restlessness, frustration and at times despair among many Mauritians. Do not forget that a global pandemic coupled with strict lockdown can play havoc on the psyche of a population.
What kind of shortcomings?
The first shortcoming has to do with the various appearances of the prime minister during the lockdown. Most of the time, they have been erratic, short and offered very little information in terms of leadership and strategy. Compare that to other world leaders such as Macron, Ramaphosa or Arden – where time was spent explaining in detail the why and how of the lockdown. Their discourses were laced with empathy and had a non-condescending tone. We all remember the brutal short notice given to us as we went into lockdown on 20 March and the decision to close all supermarkets for a week. Secondly, communication has been what can be termed a one-team show with all information centralised in the Prime Minister’s Office and the decision when and how to release dependent on that cluster. Those who have solely communicated during the two-month lockdown have been the prime minister, ministers, government spokespersons and officials. To that effect, the MBC (which we should not forget is an entity paid by the public through the licence fee) was unabashedly hijacked to pump out government propaganda on a daily basis. A ‘consortium’ made up of the MBC, the Government Information Service and Mauritius Telecom were the sole aggregators of official news in the process, crowding out private and independent media. Not once were the leader of the opposition (which we should not forget is a position guaranteed by the constitution) or elected members of the opposition invited on the MBC to speak to Mauritian viewers.
The communication team did initially include professionals like Dr Vasantrao Gujadhur, didn’t it?
Yes, these were important moments for us all when medical professionals were part of the daily briefings. Unfortunately, as the weeks unfolded those briefings smacked more of a well-oiled PR exercise as opposed to a genuine communication and information exercise.
Forget for a moment about the government’s communication strategy. What about the way it actually handled the crisis?
The management of a crisis must not be done behind closed doors and among a small cluster of people who detain privileged information whilst the rest of us are left in the dark. In fact, leaving people in the dark acts as a catalyst for speculation, half-truths or misinformation. A crisis must allow for a collective and consensual approach where all stakeholders are taken on board.
Isn’t it the end result of the strict lockdown that ultimately bore its fruits that is important?
Yes, but the methodology used to manage the virus especially in terms of communication and information management was erratic, propagandist and concentrated in the hands of a few. Therefore, my main bone of contention about the handling of the crisis remains the monopolisation of communication in the hands of the few and a drip method of releasing information.
The propaganda you mentioned above has also invaded parliamentary space. Parliamentary interventions and programme speeches have been peppered with – or reduced to – praise for the leader. Is this something new?
This is not a new phenomenon as we have also witnessed this sycophanting of leaders before in the National Assembly. What is perhaps unprecedented is the level it has now attained, especially among some of the first-time MPs. The fact that parliamentary debates are now live cast has also amplified the behavioural pattern of certain MPs and this is now in the public domain where citizens can draw their own conclusions concerning the current crop of MPs.
What is the effect of that on the Legislature as a whole?
This casts doubt on the ability of the Legislature to act as an oversight of the Executive. We should not forget that MPs (from both sides of the floor) have been elected to represent their constituents and should exercise reserve, decorum and critical judgement when required. Parliament is also the space where progressive, at times controversial ideas, have to be deliberated, supported and voted. In such cases, independence of the mind is paramount.