UN Forum on Minorities and Effective Political Participation
Media and the political participation of minorities: The Mauritian Example
Minorities face multiple challenges across the world including in Mauritius. The island-state is justly described as a plural, diverse and vibrant democracy. But the images of shining coexistence between communities that are sold to the world as a model are contested by the feelings of marginalization and everyday grievances of its minorities. Problems of social exclusion and prejudice – the social alienation of the Afro-Mauritians dubbed the “Creole malaise”(the Creole ailment), of gender discrimination and inequality regularly surface up to remind the authorities of their obligations and the need that the country makes unfaltering steps towards social justice and towards building an inclusive society. Besides, the current global financial mess, the failings of financial institutions with its severe economic and social impacts, has made even harsher demands on the poor and vulnerable: amongst them the minorities who are mostly and disproportionately affected.
As the duty-bearers try to think anew out of the financial mess, it has been emphasized that human rights has to be prioritized in policy responses to the crisis. Ensuring equitable democracy and conflict-free societies where peace is durable require that minorities are given their full rights to participate in the political process not for the sake of passive representation but for real freedom of agency and transformational social change. What are the conditions for their political participation from the perspective of the media?
Media as agents of change: It is obvious that the media may either help the processes of minority political participation or be a major obstacle to that path. A number of studies have documented the negative roles, ethical shortcomings of the media in fuelling racism, sexism and ethnic tensions. In Mauritius, although our press is not exempted for a number of criticisms, it can be argued that it has been playing a constructive role in encouraging minority participation in the political process.
In fact, the partial liberalization of the airwaves in 2002 has benefited the minorities. The cooperation of the media, particularly of the recently licensed private radio stations, has been instrumental in raising awareness, and setting the agenda about minority imbalances in the political process. In fact, the last elections in 2005 were a watershed with an unprecedented increase of women in the Mauritian Legislature. During that election, the number of female members increased sharply from 4 to 12; before 2005 the number of female members in the national assembly had never exceeded six. In their study, Yoon and Bunwaree (2008) highlight the factors that have allowed for more women to be elected in 2005, including the efforts of women’s NGOs, women’s effective campaigning, but also the cooperation of the media. In fact, they note that “in addition to their vigorous campaigns, the recent liberalization of the airwaves  helped some women, particularly female new-comers, by breaking the monopoly of airtime by incumbents, mostly men. […] Because many more radio stations exist now, politicians from different camps could make their ‘voices’ heard. The radio stations hosted a number of political programs and invited candidates, including women, thus helping women candidates gain some publicity” (Yoon and Bunwaree, 2008, p. 22).
What about the forthcoming 2010 Mauritian elections? In a context where the political class is reluctant to implement electoral reform (and proportional representation with gender quotas), would it be possible to field-in and continue increasing the number of women in the Mauritian legislature? To the question, Yoon and Bunwaree note that the commitment of electing more women into parliament require that women’s NGOs and the media should make continuous and unfaltering efforts. The media as a political ally and an active agent of change may raise awareness on issues of under-representation and support greater equity in the political process.