New beginning for media/police
June 24, 2002
On Thursday, the top brass of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) held an enlightening session with representatives from all parts of the media on how relations between the two can be improved. The impetus for the get together is the ongoing police reform programme that the British government has been assisting the GPF with. Several experts from the UK metropolitan police have visited Guyana and an important part of the programme is the remoulding of relations between the police force and the media. Deputy Police Commissioner Winston Felix is in charge of the overall programme and Paul Slowe has responsibility for media relations.
The more than two-hour-long engagement between the sides was enormously productive and there were frank exchanges. A protocol is to be drawn up to guide relations between the two sides. It is expected to set out what the police force requires from the media and vice versa.
The media and the police have not had a smooth relationship in recent decades and a significant part of this is attributable to the role that the post-independence police have historically had as an instrument of those wielding state power. As a result of this special role, the police force has not been accountable to the public the way a professional police force should be, neither has it seen the need for this. For a long time, the force has functioned as if it was answerable only to the political directorate and occasionally to the judicial system.
Its disposition to the media during this period was therefore one of disinterested engagement in which it dictated the pace and content of the relation. Whatever the force wanted to supply the media with in terms of information it did with hardly any consideration of the give and take that is so necessary in a healthy relationship. The media either took it or left it and that was the end of it. The police didn’t take the media into its confidence in any sustained manner and quite often saw it as an irritant and impediment in discharging its duties. With weak disciplinary institutions and an unyieldingly supportive administration, the police could do as it like.
Times are changing. The winds of democratisation and accountability are gusting at Eve Leary, a combination perhaps of external influence, an alienated public, the furore over extra-judicial killings and a nefarious criminal enterprise that has taken direct aim at the police force.
The GPF has now come to realise that a productive relationship with the media can help it to discharge its essential law enforcement responsibilities, track down criminals and improve its relationship with the public.
Whatever the epiphanic experience, the public and the media must stand ready to help the GPF to conduct itself according to the highest possible professional standards. This newspaper is prepared to assist in whatever way it can.
Just as the police force has its part to play in the tapestry of national life, the media also has its mission. That mission, in part, is to be a watchdog and to fearlessly report on transgressions against the law and injustices. In this respect, the GPF and the media have been severely at odds in the last few decades over allegations of extra-judicial killings, brutality etc. If Thursday’s meeting is to result in a sea of change in relations between the GPF and the media it will require the GPF coming around to the understanding that wherever the media detects what it thinks is a grave miscarriage of justice by policemen it will say so. The reaction of police should not be a battening down of the hatches and attacks on the media. Its enlightened response should be to take its case to the media and the public and present as much information as possible. Where allegations of extra-judicial killings - really the litmus test for the police - have been made, the GPF must be prepared to respond in a professional manner and argue its case by providing evidence and cogent arguments. It is then the obligation of the media to transmit this information to the public in a balanced and responsible manner. Despite the misgivings of the police, the media is not interested in reporting one side of the story.
There are many sides. The media is primarily interested in the truth and where it is supplied with the details that allow it to present a balanced and accurate view of what happened, it will do this. That isn’t to say that all media houses observe the fundamental tenets of balance and accuracy in reporting. We acknowledge that some of the TV stations specialise in the opposite without any qualms. At the end of the day, the police have to rely on the mainstream media to do a professional job with the hope that fringe establishments that deliberately set out to deceive and misreport will be ostracised and sidelined.
The mechanics of the new relationship will be worked out in the coming months and change will be more incremental than sweeping. However, it is a good start and both sides want it to work. Professionalising the police/media relationship is really only one part of the reform process. The relationship will only work properly if the entire scope of the police’s work is professionalised. The police can hardly tell the truth to the media if it lacks investigative capacity and the forensic science tools to help it elucidate crimes and win cases. If these deficiencies persist, the syndrome of beaten confessions and brutality will persist. It can hardly tell the truth to the media if indeed certain sections of its membership are engaged in extra-judicial killings and other crimes. It can hardly tell the truth to the media if its ranks are paid starvation wages and therefore yield to corrupt practices to make a living.
So the success of the relationship also hinges on many other aspects of the GPF’s functions, areas that clearly the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Government will have to address.