The police, the public and the press
March 14, 2003
The police, the public and the press have had an uneasy relationship over the past year of crime. The main problems have surrounded the conduct of the police, the accuracy of reports about incidents involving lethal force, and the interpretation by the press of the conduct of persons involved in those events.
Soon after the crime wave started last year, the Guyana Police Force employed the Georgetown City Council's information officer Royston King, briefly, as a consultant; Assistant Superintendent David Ramnaraine, an energetic young officer, was appointed PRO; Deputy Commissioner Winston Felix convened a seminar to build a friendlier media relationship; and Commissioner Floyd McDonald started meeting the media more frequently to report on serious incidents and to attempt to polish the image of the police in the eyes of the public.
These were good moves but, apart from the prompt issuance of incident reports, and more frequent press briefings, some problems persisted. This was evident in the extraordinary front-page apology to the police, in a state-owned medium, for what was called an 'unverified report' of two police killings in a certain East Coast village. The report was referred to as a 'grave lapse' and the editor on duty was identified by name as being responsible for the supposed error of judgement.
The publication of an apology to the police in this form was so unusual, if not unethical, that the well-known columnist Rickey Singh was moved to write a letter to the editor to express his disagreement with the public criticism of the editor. The apology raised, also, the issues of the exercise of professional judgement by the editor and of fair comment by the reporter who wrote this article in the first place, and the definition of what constitutes a 'verified report'.
There seems to be no doubt that the police had killed two men but, apparently, there were different versions of the manner in which they were shot. Since the incident occurred in broad daylight, and in a public place where many witnesses were present, the reporter asked bystanders for their comments which contradicted the police account. This was not the first time that a so-called 'eye witness' version differed from the official 'police account', especially of a fatal shooting.
All too often, the victim of a police shooting is described as a suspect, wanted man, known criminal or bandit, descriptions usually accompanied by accounts of threatening actions which, even if true, seem insufficient grounds for shooting a person dead rather than arrest or even injury. The failure to conduct coroners' inquests soon after such incidents, if at all, and the large number of such deaths (the Minister of Home Affairs admitted that 14 'suspects' had been killed in 'confrontations' with the police in the first six weeks of 2003) has led not only to widespread cynicism among the public but also to the growth of 'alternative media', especially television, which have tended to undermine the credibility of official sources along with that of the mainstream press, with their own fantastic accounts.
If the press, even a state-owned newspaper, is to be of any value, it must have the duty to seek the widest, best and most reliable sources of evidence in any incident. It would be irresponsible, unprofessional and unhelpful to rely exclusively on police press releases.
What then would be the purpose of an independent press if the parroting of official releases was all that journalism was about?
Although it has become standard practice for considerable weight to be given to official accounts, the evidence of witnesses should not be discounted completely. The police have been known to be wrong about many things, especially where members of the Force were involved. A police press release issued a few hours after an incident, based on the testimony of policemen, may not necessarily be more accurate than a media report based on the testimony of eye-witnesses.
Even where there is no malice or ill will, mistakes could occur, not only in on-the-spot reporting but at a more deliberative inquiry or coroner's inquest. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to discover the 'truth' about many matters.
An editor of a news medium will always be faced with the professional dilemma of deciding what weight should be accorded to contradictory accounts of the same incident, especially where witnesses include relatives or friends of the deceased person, but the public will be ill served if official releases were to be accepted at face value and reprinted without corroboration by other sources.
In the final analysis, it is in the public interest that reporters and editors be left free to perform their professional duty without fear and the threat of intimidation or public excoriation.