Doing a job

Stabroek News
August 15, 1999

In our edition of August 11, a letter was published from Senior Superintendent Ivelaw Whittaker, the Public Relations Officer of the Guyana Police Force. He claimed that a news report which had appeared in the Sunday Stabroek of August 8, had played down an "effective Police operation" whereby 56 houses were searched and 42 persons arrested for various offences, by highlighting an allegation of assault made by a citizen against some members of the force involved in the exercise. Suffice it to say for the moment that there is a serious problem if the police believe that an allegation of assault from a hard-working, law-abiding member of the public should be swept under the carpet because their officers made 42 arrests that same day. This is not to deny, of course, that the police campaign is of significance, but there cannot be an assumption that ordinary citizens must inevitably accept a degree of hazard when members of the force are discharging their functions.

That is not, however, the only complaint Senior Superintendent Whittaker had to make in his letter. He singled out the journalist responsible for the news item, whom he did not specifically name but correctly described as a Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Reserve officer, as also being the author of another report concerning an "incident where a hand grenade was thrown at a Police Riot Unit in Main Street, Georgetown, during the recent public servants strike." This particular report, he continued, was based on statements "purportedly" made by a GDF officer, "which has been denied by the Guyana Defence Force authorities."

The implication is that the journalist in question lacks evenhandedness when dealing with the police. Not so. In any case, the final form of any story is the responsibility of the editor on duty and not the journalist, and this instance was no exception.

It will be recalled that on June 10 a grenade was discovered during a Public Service demonstration outside the Ministry of Finance. The police maintained that it had been thrown by the strikers, an account which was carried in our June 11 edition. However, there were other versions contradicting the police one which we also carried, and which suggested that the grenade had fallen out of a bag carried by the police.

In view of the discrepancies between the different versions, this newspaper sought the expert opinion of an army officer trained in explosives. He was not asked about the facts of the case. He was given those based on the eye-witness accounts of two Stabroek News reporters (not one, as Mr Whittaker might seem to believe) on the scene. They had not seen how the grenade came to be on the ground; however, they had watched the bomb squad officers retrieve the pin from close to the explosive device, and they had been witnesses to the almost casual handling of it by the police, who had not even cleared the area.

The officer was asked, therefore, about the proximity of the pin to the grenade, and he replied, "I have never seen a pin and grenade that was lobbed end up in the same direction." With regard to the handling of the explosive device after its discovery, he was very critical of the procedures followed by the police.

Mr Whittaker has now suggested that there was no army officer, and that the GDF had denied that there was. Well, there was an army officer who answered questions from this newspaper, and to the best of our knowledge the GDF has never issued any public statement on the subject. But all of that is beside the point. What Senior Superintendent Whittaker has to ask is whether it is indeed the case that it is unusual to find the pin in close proximity to a grenade which has just been lobbed, and if it is, what possible explanations can be given for the Main Street phenomenon. Secondly, is it the case that the police did not follow guidelines in the handling of explosives after the grenade had made its unwelcome appearance, and if so, why did they not?

If Mr Whittaker and the officers he represents answer these questions and related ones in an unequivocal way, then they should come to the conclusion that Stabroek News was not targeting the police force, it was merely doing its job.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples