JOURNALISM OF ALLEGATIONS OR JOURNALISM OF FACT FINDING & VERIFICATION?
BY PREM MISIR
February 3, 2004
The media frenzy on the 'phantom death squad' allegations is now sweeping Guyana. Yes, these are serious allegations that need to be addressed. However, notwithstanding any court trial outcome and/or investigation, some sections of the media and some political forces already seem to have Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj indicted and found guilty for complicity in the phantom death squad affair.
As the media frenzy continues unabated and in the face of limited picketing calling for the Minister's resignation, the Canadian High Commission in Guyana revoked a Canadian Visa for the Minister of Home Affairs. At the time of this writing, no reason for revocation has been provided, despite the Minister's request to have the reason made public. The revocation, coming on the heels of the phantom death squad allegations, may leave an individual to surmise that the Canadian Government is in support of the allegations against the Minister. Indeed, the timing of this Visa revocation symbolizes poor diplomacy. Further, given that Guyana is a democratic sovereign nation, and that no proper cause for the Visa revocation is evidenced, then the Canadian High Commission's action in this regard would smack of interference.
Police initiating investigation
Let's return to the matter of the allegations. We however, need to pause for a moment and consider that what we have before us are allegations. But in its rush to judgment, the media, particularly, fails to apply the principles of due process and equal protection before the law as required in a criminal justice system.
The allegations are serious enough to warrant an investigation. But it is the criminal justice system that does initiate this investigative process. Specifically, in order to initiate this process, the Police would require statements from Mr. George Bacchus and Opposition Leader Mr. Robert Corbin, both of whom claim to have information/intelligence on the workings of some phantom death squad. The Police would then have to assess and evaluate these statements. This has not as yet happened. However, given the staid nature of the allegations, the Police have to make a special effort with a great deal urgency to obtain the information/intelligence from Mr. George Bacchus and Mr. Robert Corbin.
The Police have to open this investigation. If the difficulty in providing this information/intelligence has anything to do with Minister Gajraj's presence as Political Head of the Guyana Police Force, then in the interest of the Police quickly initiating this investigation, the Minister can recuse himself from his role until the investigation concludes. However, the Minister does not need to resign. History is replete with instances that do not support a public official's resignation prior to the conclusion of an investigation. Most recently, only after the Hutton Report was made public, that a number of key BBC stakeholders resigned while some others were vindicated.
Allegations in the media
During this hiatus, we see the media's political partisan interests lay bare, and wonder how suspect and credible their daily print and broadcast installments on the allegations are. Keep in mind the recent erroneous media statements which among others include the lie detector equipment and test, Gajraj's alleged involvement with the phantom death squad, and the bungling of migration statistics even after USAID made a correction.
The real question amid this media frenzy is how the media should address allegations. Let's briefly review how others fare on this matter. The recent British Hutton Report chastised the BBC for broadcasting allegations that were unfounded. The BBC Reporter Andrew Gilligan, was at the center of the controversy, on the Today Program aired on May 29, 2003. On that program, Gilligan claimed that the British Government, in its dossier which was 'sexed up' to positively demonstrate that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was aware that the claim indicating that the WMD in Iraq could be activated within 45 minutes, was questionable or wrong. He further reported that this 45-minute claim was not mentioned in the first draft because it came from one source and that the intelligence agencies did not believe this allegation to be true. The Hutton Report concluded that the allegations were unfounded.
Lord Hutton said: "The communication by the media of information...on matters of public interest and importance is a vital part of life in a democratic society. However the right to communicate such information is subject to the qualification...that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media. Where a reporter is intending to broadcast or publish information impugning the integrity of others the management of his broadcasting or newspaper should ensure that a system is in place whereby his editor or editors give careful consideration to the wording of the report and to whether it is right in all circumstances to broadcast or publish it."
Hutton clearly concludes that on this matter of the British Government's dossier, aimed at showing the public that IRAQ had WMD, the BBC engaged in a journalism of assertion rather than a journalism of verification and fact finding. The Gilligan 'screw-up' may very well have been an attempt at influencing world events; this is not what journalism purports to be. Good Caribbean journalism is no different from good journalism emanating from other parts of the world.
Caribbean Communications Specialists Dwight Whylie and Harry Mayers of the Independent Media Monitoring and Refereeing Panel in 2001, indicated that talk shows have degenerated and were a 'significant destabilizing factor' in the society. They found one talk show to be obnoxious and statements spurted out were lacking in evidence. Incredibly, this talk show claimed in his response that talk-show hosts do not have to provide evidence. Whylie pointed out that for any talk-show host to claim that it was not his/her responsibility to provide evidence, was sheer illiteracy, as all information has some foundation for truth. The notion of talk-show hosts not wanting to seek out the evidence prior to broadcasting, is dangerous and irresponsible, according to Whylie, and violates all codes of conduct in journalism. The principle of seeking out evidence to substantiate allegations must be an important guideline for journalists. We must allow the criminal justice system to work through the Police initiating the phantom death squad investigation to produce evidence, thereby separating false allegations from true allegations.