Contextualizing crime

There is a saying attributed to the 19th century circus owner, Phineas T. Barnum, which says that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” This bold statement is not usually interpreted too literally and is thought to recognise publicity as a contributor to business success, particularly as compared to no publicity. In reporting a matter, a responsible press strives to be truthful, impartial and as balanced as possible, attempting to represent all the sides to the story. Nevertheless, good news is good news and bad news is bad news and a responsible press cannot and should not seek to misrepresent the story for partisan reasons.

But when a business or other organisation suffers from negative exposure in the media, they are usually hard-pressed to act to repair any perceived damage to their image. This repair job can take many forms including advertisements placed in the media by the firm or other organisation. An artfully executed public relations exercise can often see tremendous benefits accruing to the organisation through sensible handling of the initial “bad press” incident.

Applying this scenario on the country level, Guyana currently and on an almost daily basis, is the subject of some news reports which, viewed individually or collectively, paint a negative picture of the country. Reports of violent crime particularly, including robberies and even murder, when picked up by the international press, do create a negative impression of Guyana as a destination for business or pleasure. Such negative assessments have resulted in the issue of a few international travel advisories which might give the casual traveller pause when considering Guyana as a travel destination.

But what is often missing when analysing negative news reports emanating from Guyana, is a contextualisation of the data and information. It is a well-known aphorism that “bad news travels fast” and farthest too it seems, while good news travels on the colloquial turtle’s back. This means that, as a country, those with administrative responsibility have an obligation to constantly update and deliver context to the perception of Guyana generally, and more specifically as a tourist or investment destination.

Recently the bad news was reported that an international Yachting Rally scheduled for September at Bartica on the Essequibo River, was unfortunately cancelled after a vast majority of the foreign participants suddenly withdrew from the event because of safety fears stemming from news reports of the piracy attack that occurred in Suriname waters affecting Guyanese fishers with alleged involvement of both Guyanese and Surinamese perpetrators. While this unprecedented attack on the fishers is currently still being investigated, it does appear that this was not a “regular” pirate attack and the motives of the perpetrators may shed additional light on the events as investigators in Suriname and Guyana continue their efforts to crack the case.

The matter requiring some determination, however, is whether this incident in Surinamese waters harbours  any risk to potential yachting exercises in the Essequibo River. It was reported that some of the yachting enthusiasts actually live on board their vessels, so safety on the waters is of paramount importance to them. It therefore behoves those with the responsibility and authority for disseminating information to contextualize the occurrence on the Corentyne River between Suriname and Guyana, to highlight the geographical and nautical separation that exists between Bartica and the Corentyne and the respective rivers. Government could have also been approached by the organisers to consider the provision of attendant security measures to give participants confidence in their own safety.

Guyana is usually compared only with its history when negative incidents occur, so it usually represents a significant statistic when we talk about the “crime wave” or the “great flood” on the East Coast corridor in 2003 and 2005. But when Guyana is compared to other countries in and outside the region, our crime and other statistics, when properly compiled and presented, are found to be not as severe. Improperly compiled and presented, or absent statistics can give rise to incorrect assessments and negative impressions of us as a country.

The government is currently producing a digital map which seeks to highlight areas tourists and others should consider unsafe as they are traversing Demerara/Mahaica (Region 4), and this may help to reduce fears and increase confidence of both visitors and Guyanese alike once this digital map is accurately prepared and disseminated online in an interactive and accessible manner. However, there is likely to be some fallout particularly from businesses and others which may find themselves located in the “unsafe zones” identified on this map. This effort should be based on actual data and not solely on public perception. As more data becomes available the map should be constantly updated and information and statistics shared with the general public.

 The digital crime map is an example of “taking the bull by the horns” as the negative perception of Guyana as a haven for violent crime is already in the public domain internationally. Nevertheless, the risk to particular categories of visitors to Guyana in parts of the city should not be fuelled by speculation and bad news but should be determined by empirical evidence and data assimilation. Guyana still prides itself on the reputation of being probably the most hospitable Caribbean and South American country in its treatment of visitors, and this reality should not be tarnished by a few unpleasant incidents which have been viewed outside of the appropriate context or without the benefit of accurate statistics.

With the considerable attention being given to this country as a consequence of our new status as an oil and gas country, it behoves us more than ever, to create the necessary statistical and information driven environment that can assure potential visitors of a welcoming stay here.

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