Restricting crime reporting in the campaign season

In a letter published in last Friday’s issue of this newspaper, the letter-writer angrily dismisses the alleged ruling that henceforth the various Divisional Commanders of the Guyana Police Force must defer to Police Commissioner Henry Greene in the Force’s interaction with the media as “sheer stupidity.” If we share the writer’s frustration over the likely impact of the decision to add media minding to the Commissioner’s list of duties, we disagree with the characterization of this development as “stupidity.” In fact, it has is a distinct political motive and viewed from the government’s blinkered perspective, makes perfect sense. More than that, the genesis of the thinking that led to the decision may well have had nothing at all to do with the wishes of the Police Commissioner himself.

If there is sometimes a Kafkaesque quality to some of the decisions that are made by the PPP/C administration, their real motives become clear once you pay careful attention to the context in which those decisions are made. Then, they manifest themselves as neither meaningless nor stupid. Rather, they fit into a pattern. To discern the pattern you have to connect the dots. That can sometimes be difficult.

Every conceivable decision that the PPP/C administration has made in recent months has been contrived with this year’s general elections in mind. This one would be no exception. The long and short of a decision reportedly to muzzle the Divisional Commanders would have to do with the fact that the political administration, having come to terms with the woeful ineffectiveness of its anti-crime measures, has decided that its next best bet would be to tighten its grip on the dissemination of information on crime and crime-fighting since it is here that it considers itself most vulnerable as general elections approach.

Obtaining official information from the police is not, at the best of times, an easy task. There are, however, journalists who have painstakingly cultivated some Divisional Commanders whom, if the truth be told, are sometimes prepared to trust those journalists to place information in the public domain in so far as disclosure does not compromise police investigations. Those arrangements have worked well to some extent, even though the information that is disseminated often lays bare the gap between the commission of crimes and the apprehension of criminals. In short, the truth often does little to burnish the image of the Force.

But it is not the image of the Force that the administration is principally concerned with at this time. It is with the fact that crime has such prominence in the local news. The government is not unaware of the effect that media reporting on crime can have on shaping public opinion in the height of an election season.  It is this that concerns the government and the timing of the decision strongly suggests that it was influenced by this line of reasoning.

Centralizing the flow of information on crime under the Commissioner allows for more effective control over the volume of official information dissemination on crime and over what is reported and what is not. The new arrangements, the administration has reasoned, will alter the face of the media as far as crime reporting is concerned.

If the letter writer is correct in the assertion that the new arrangements make the work of the media “more difficult,” the substantive purpose of those arrangements has everything to do with reducing the flow of negative information at this time, thereby, hopefully, rendering the electorate more attentive and receptive to the government’s own campaign messages while taking the wind out of its political opponents’ sails.

To connect the dots you have to go back to a story published in the Sunday Chronicle of May 8 which reported the Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee as saying that crime should not be made an elections issue since it would send the wrong signal to the criminals. Here, we believe that Mr Rohee was actually expressing a political concern – in the aforementioned Kafkaesque manner – with the impact that using crime as an elections issue might have on the electorate. His allusion to the impact on criminals was, we believe, a deliberate distraction from his and the government’s real concern. Not only is Mr Rohee aware that crime is a legitimate elections issue; he also understands  that it is an issue that will become more prominent as the elections campaign intensifies.

Several consequences, predetermined by the administration, will flow from cutting the Divisional Commanders out of the information dissemination ‘loop.’ First, it will remove access to the first-hand information on criminal acts and the responses of the police that usually emanate directly from the men on the ground, the Divisional Commanders. Secondly, it will create room for the vetting of official information on crime before such information is released to the press. Thirdly, it will create bureaucratic bottlenecks designed to reduce the flow of information to the media since, even if and when the Commissioner is inclined to talk to the media he will have to wait for information to arrive at his desk – from the desks of the very Divisional Commanders – before he can say anything; and of course if he chooses not to speak to the media he can always say, as he has done in the past, that he is “awaiting a report.” All this, of course, will make the work of journalists more challenging than it already is.

It is no secret that sections of the media have proven adept at securing unattributed information from police sources outside the realm of officialdom. Such arrangements will probably now be intensified in the light of the drying up of official sources. Beyond that, if, as seems highly likely, the new procedures for information dissemination create voids, the inevitable speculation that is likely to fill those voids will do little to help the cause of the government and even less to improve the image of the Police Force.

Over time, the PPP/C administration has done much to erode the credit which it had initially been given for allowing a greater freedom to the media. As the administration has grown more comfortable with political office it has become more intolerant of the restraints which free media place on political excesses. Indeed, this is not the first instance in which the administration’s intolerance of those restraints has led to moves on its part to hold the power of free media in check. For all we know this may not be the last time either.

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