TRIAL BY MEDIA: ALLEGATION V. INVESTIGATION
BY PREM MISIR
January 27, 2004
The mass media is a 'sacred cow' for some owners/managers in Guyana. They see their media houses as untouchable and which operate only in the private interest. Some recent printed media lies and allegations, that George Bacchus was administered a lie detector test at the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown when that Embassy has no such equipment, the report that Mark Thomas charged with the murder of Shafeek Bacchus was hospitalized because of food poisoning when in fact he collapsed on learning of the murder charge against him, and the daily media frenzy on the allegation that Minister Ronald Gajraj had knowledge and involvement on the formation of some 'death squad', are only a few cases in point.
Independent verification of sources
Each day, some editors/owners/managers invade the public's mind with these unverifiable and unworthy reports, executed with some sort of divine right. Clearly, little consideration was given to the public interest, convenience, and necessity, given that seemingly the reports were devoid of independent verification, and that statements presented on a daily basis are mere allegations. The newspaper that reported on the lie detector test now claims that that report was based on sources that were previously well informed and reliable. Well, this is not good enough, especially in light of daily printed allegations threatening homeland security.
Each allegation pertaining to some 'death squad' must be the subject of constant monitoring and evaluation. It is erroneous to solely rely on the past performance of sources in light of the serious allegations peddled by the mass media. These allegations are important and must be subject to objective scrutiny by the appropriate authority. However, the credibility and integrity of the sources for these allegations also must be determined through due process and equal protection, significant philosophies in any criminal justice system in a democratic society.
Due process & equal protection
Due process stipulates that a person should not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without reasonable and lawful procedures. Justice Felix Frankfurter states that "Due process," unlike some legal rules, is not a technical conception with a fixed content unrelated to time, place and circumstances..."due process" is compounded of history, reason, the past course of decisions, and stout confidence in the strength of the democratic faith which we possess. Due process is not a mechanical instrument. It is not a yardstick. It is a process." Equal protection, the other philosophy in the criminal justice system, guarantees all people the same treatment, without regard to their memberships in certain classes or groups. These allegations have to be investigated using the principles of due process and equal protection.
Statement to Police
Fundamentally, the criminal justice system has four (4) components: police, prosecution, courts, and corrections. The George Bacchus' story has as yet not been presented to the Police. The Police Commissioner (ag) reported that ranks from the Criminal Investigation Department, on at least five (5) occasions, unsuccessfully attempted to contact George Bacchus, in order to obtain his statement. The Police currently are dialoging with Bacchus' attorney-at-law to obtain his statement, in order to proceed with an investigation. In the intervening time, President Bharrat Jagdeo has informed the Commissioner that Opposition Leader Mr. Robert Corbin penned a letter to him, suggesting that he has information/intelligence pertaining to the alleged operation of several "death squads" and the collusion of senior public officials. The Commissioner has since written to Mr. Corbin to hand over any information/intelligence in his possession. The Commissioner, at this time, has not received any response from Mr. Corbin or Bacchus' attorney-at-law, or any other individual or group. Providing amnesty and counseling may induce some people to supply information/intelligence to the Police. However, the Police need this information/intelligence to initiate a preliminary investigation.
Allegation v. investigation
It is pure conjecture and an insult to the professionalism and integrity of the Guyana Police Force for the media to imply that some alleged police involvement in a 'death squad" will taint any police investigation. The U.S. Attorney General recently recused himself from an investigation into a CIA leak, and his Deputy in the same Attorney General's Department was appointed to administer the investigation. In any case, an investigation is a process that can have several parts and possible spin-offs. In the first place, however, the Police need a formal statement to establish ownership of the allegations. The formal statement may lead to interviewing witnesses and providing information that could produce an arrest. The information contained in a formal statement to the Police is a legal document that may be sufficient to charge an individual with an offense.
Trial by media
Meanwhile, some media houses are killing any initial police investigation before it takes off through their own editorial prejudgments. Mick O'Regan on Radio National and Radio Australia describes trial by media as judgment without right of reply, of public humiliation without recourse to remedy, and that the public may see these allegations as facts.
Historically, in democracies, the media has had a sacrosanct responsibility of preserving democracy, but today, this distinctive character is missing. The U.S. Hutchins Commission defines news as "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning." "...the press' purpose has become that of attracting and entertaining consumers, increasingly with distorted and unreal images that are the antitheses produced by good journalism" (Squires). These references pertain to the U.S., but some of Guyana's media houses now may already have reached this threshold, a threshold inimical to good journalism. Some media houses rarely nowadays operate in the public interest, but function as a business to gain the highest level of profitability. If this assertion stands, how then should we perceive the media allegations relating to a 'death squad"? How do we know whether or not these allegations are true, spurious or vexatious? Only an investigation can tell us. Let the Police proceed