Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Media freedom is precious. Do not jeopardise it

Exploited in death:  Michaela McAreavey
Exploited in death: Michaela McAreavey

Is it possible for some good to emerge from the legal and media firestorm that erupted after the murder of Michaela McAreavey and the subsequent trial of two suspects?

I would argue that, yes, it is possible. But it will take a massive commitment to change from the Mauritian authorities and a willingness to accept advice and guidance from foreign experts.

Firstly, to the publication of the photographs of Michaela in death.

Rarely have I seen such a cynical, contemptible and immoral attempt to boost circulation. There are no reasons to justify publication and, so far, the editor - apart from a few initial and meaningless platitudes - doesn't appear to have attempted to justify it.

The episode confirms that - in spite a debate locally on media accountability - there is no adequate watchdog that seeks to hold the Press and TV properly to account. Mauritius sorely needs appropriate oversight, both to defend victims against media excesses and to fight for media rights. These two principles are not contradictory; in fact, they are mutually supportive.

Simply put, Mauritius needs a proper Press Complaints Council and a redefined, transparent and campaigning Society of Editors-type body.

The complaints council should practise self-regulation of the most energetic and transparent kind; fiercely independent, with a majority of non-aligned lay people, investigatory ability and some real teeth to penalise wrong-doing. Equally, the editors' body should also be governed by international best-practice and should seek to robustly defend media freedoms against political and legal attack.

Media freedom, particularly in the developing world, is an incredibly precious thing, which all too often comes under attack from all sides. It needs to be protected.

Put simply: a vigorous media is essential for democracy, but it, in turn, must be a healthy media free from external pressure and devoid of internal corruption.

On a wider front, similar best-practice needs to be extended to the other fault-lines that were exposed by the horrible murder of Michaela. These include crime-scene management, supervision of the police and the conduct of trials.

Again, perhaps the local authorities could learn from the UK and, in particular, the model of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which, in spite of its controversies, has much to be admired and much that could be exported to an island with a not-dissimilar population size to ours.

If the Mauritius Government moves to fix the island's media and criminal justice institutions, then, yes, some good may come from this sad affair.

It is a complicated and rather daunting task.

It is also, however, an essential one.

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