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Media relations and law enforcement

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Two Searchlight staff members were privileged this week to have an open and frank discussion with high-ranking law enforcement officials in a formal setting.

Since November 3rd, about twenty senior law enforcement officers from seven Regional Security System (RSS) member states have been engaged in a four-week Command and Staff Course here.{{more}} We were invited to give them our perspective on relations with law enforcement, to hear what they thought about us and to make recommendations for improved relations.

If the men and women taking part in the course are a good representative sample of law enforcement in the region, it is clear that they, that is, the military, police, customs, immigration and coast guard don’t trust the media. That is unfortunate, as neither the media nor law enforcement can effectively perform their roles without cooperation from the other.

The officers told us that it is their opinion that the media sets out to make them look bad or incompetent. They also said that they are afraid that when they make comments to the media what they say will be taken out of context or that a simple statement will be blown up and made the focus of a story, not necessarily complimentary to them.

Journalists, at least, those with ethics, do not set out to make anyone look bad. Our first obligation is to the truth, and our first loyalty is to our citizens. Sometimes, in doing our job, in bringing the truth to the public, individuals or organizations are not portrayed in the best light. Those affected then lash out and brand us as unpatriotic, negative or wanting to pull down.

That brings us to the issue of what is news. One veteran army man from Jamaica complained that he once gave an interview about the admission of recruits to the army, but the reporter chose one statement out of the many he made and developed a whole story around it. The regular, the ordinary, the mundane is not news.

They complained about the headlines that scream “Police brutality”, yet one police officer from a nearby OECS country bragged to us that he has destroyed many journalists’ cameras in the past and will destroy many more in the future. He said no journalist will be allowed to photograph him while he is doing what he has to do. He however could not explain why he did not want to be photographed while performing his lawful duty.

One of the most important obligations of the media is to give a voice to the most vulnerable among us. If a citizen walks off the streets and says that he was beaten by police, or that his pants were slashed, he deserves to be heard. That being said, we have ethics by which we are guided. We try to be fair, accurate and balanced. Therefore when someone makes an allegation against law enforcement or any one for that matter, any journalist worth their salt will seek to get the other side of the story, but more often than not in these cases, the police will say they are not aware of the incident. Why is that so?

Our discussions could have gone on for hours, but unfortunately we only had 45 minutes. But even that short time was enough for us, and we believe the participants in the course, to get some insight into how the other side thinks. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and useful exercise.

Unfortunately, there were only four law enforcement participants in the course from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Now is as good a time as any for us to renew our oft-made call to Commissioner Miller to convene a local media / law enforcement symposium in the interest of good relations between the two groups and the development of our country.