A PR fiasco Editorial
Stabroek News
March 3, 2002

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The escape of five prisoners from the Camp Street jail is a fiasco of colossal dimensions for the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prison Service. However, there is a related fiasco which has gone largely unremarked, namely, the poor Public Relations (PR) work which followed the jailbreak. If no one now believes what officialdom has to say on this subject, and if all kinds of information deriving from unofficial sources, some reliable and some highly suspect, is appearing in the media, the Government has no one but itself to blame.

It was the Guyana Police Force which was first galvanised into action some four hours after the event on February 23 to give the initial account of what had transpired. In the evening, it issued photographs and descriptions of the wanted men which along with the substance of its first press release, were carried in this newspaper the following day.

Thereafter, there was total silence until the Guyana Information Agency (GINA) crackled into life on Sunday afternoon via the fax machine to inform us that Minister Gajraj was setting up a commission of inquiry into the break-out, and that the GPF had mounted a "manhunt around-the-clock" for the escapees. After that, silence descended again, until last week, when the President had a few words to say, Dr Luncheon had a few words to say, and GINA dispatched a flurry of releases several of which were based on interviews with members of the prison service.

Where information is concerned, there are various things that the Government has to take into account following an event of this kind. The first is, quite simply, that the public is entitled to accurate information about what has happened. The breach of security in the Georgetown jail is a matter of public interest, and while citizens may not be entitled to know absolutely everything, they are entitled to know most of the details available to the authorities at any given stage on the break-out itself. What they may not be entitled to know, is information which could compromise the recapture of the five men.

While one can understand the embarrassment of the authorities in the circumstances, they should have recognized that there is no way of hiding a jailbreak, there is no way of covering up a jailbreak and the best PR agency in the world can't really do much to salvage the reputation of the agencies which are likely to be held responsible for it. Aside from the fact that citizens have a right to know what happened, therefore, the best thing officialdom can do for itself in this situation is to be honest and transparent with the public.

And honest and transparent it wasn't. The first press release emanating from the police was flawed in material respects, lacked internal consistency and had huge lacunae in the story. Prison Officer Troy Williams, it indicated, was shot. In fact, as the autopsy showed, he died of stab wounds. Prison Officer Roxanne Winfield was the one who was shot. The escaped men, it claimed, joined a grey car which was waiting outside and sped away. In fact, the men hijacked the car of a private citizen who had the misfortune to be on the scene at the time. The statement gave the impression that the two officers were on duty together at one gate inside the prison, when in fact that does not seem to have been the case.

Now if this was just a preliminary statment before the police were in possession of all the facts, why was it not corrected and amplified subsequently? Thereafter, the police fell as obdurately silent as all the other agencies, and this at a time when the ball was in their court with manhunts, etc. The one thing they did do right, was to supply information on and photographs of the escapees on February 23.

And then there is the question of the issuing of information in a timely fashion, something to which the public also has a right. It is true that February 23 was Mashramani Day, which made things particularly difficult, but surely the authorities have contingency plans for such occasions. Why were they mute (the police on Saturday as noted, excepted) for two days? Even if they didn't issue releases, at least the relevant officials could have spoken to reporters, instead of spending the weekend incommunicado. Why did the Minister of Home Affairs hold no press briefing on Sunday (since Saturday was Mashramani) as a jailbreak of this seriousness demanded? It is in an information vacuum such as this that rumours flourish.

As it is, when the Government information machine finally cranked up last week, and the powers that be began to realise that it was in their interest to be more open, it was already too late; the damage to their credibility had already been done.