From the Sunday Express headline on the 24th, ‘Gary choked me’, to the Newsday report of an affidavit on the 27th, headlined ‘Gary never touched me’, the story is staggering and deeply concerning. The initial Express report alleged that the police commissioner choked and threatened a Cocorite resident, Mr Cecil Junior Skeete, who was suspected of gang involvement.
The newspaper reported five unfruitful attempts to have police sources address the allegations before going to print. Subsequently, the police commissioner did not address the essence of the story but averred that he did not threaten anyone.
In the Newsday report, the resident denied some parts of the account, most significantly the acts of choking and threatening. He said he did not ‘authorise, permit or instruct’ the reporter to publish the information (but did not deny speaking with her). He also threw a police corporal ‘under the bus’.
But his confirmation of the incident, under the watchful eyes of armed SORT officers, is mindboggling. Really? Is this our expectation of a normal investigation? Where is the procedure for natural justice when the commissioner is the one interviewing the suspect?
Does this not put unnecessary work on the Police Service Commission for simple matters that can be better handled? Is the police corporal going to be able to tell his side of the story, or will he remain tarnished with the slur of collaborating with criminal elements? I guess with the lack of a ‘whistleblower’ piece of legislation, he will be left to dry.
The police commissioner, commenting on the story, advanced his belief about a conspiracy between rogue police officers and ‘certain members of the media’ to discredit him. However, when asked a legitimate question about possible undue influence in the creation of the affidavit, Commissioner Gary Griffith characterised it as a ‘stupid question’ and accused the Newsday reporter—an experienced crime reporter—of being part of the media conspiracy and proceeded to block his access.
This incident is an important issue since justice must be seen to be done and reported accurately and impartially. The police commissioner had ample opportunity to provide his side of the story before the Express publication. He chose not to.
He, and all public officials, particularly those who enjoy the media spotlight, must be open to the glare of public scrutiny. While they may consider this to be intrusive or even obstructive, and while they may feel under siege, the media is the watchdog of our democracy.
The media, on our behalf, holds all public officials accountable. Their questions cannot be ‘stupid’. Public officials cannot unilaterally decide which reporter should get which bits of information. The media is not a handmaiden to any of us.
Fortunately, our country subscribed to the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration (General Assembly Resolution 55/2), which commits us to ‘to ensure the freedom of the media to perform their essential role and the right of the public to have access to information’. With multiple independent media channels and the police service’s video unit, alternative views can contend in the public arena.
Mr Griffith should not be afraid of being challenged by any particular media house or reporter. The media is an institution needed in our democracy and cannot be beholden to any public official. In the gayelle of public opinion, we will have reasoned deliberation and critical discussion empowered by our tolerance for alternative views. Nobody should attempt to take this from us.
It is an unnerving spectre to have the police commissioner, like some international leaders, believing in conspiracies and that he alone cares about the country’s interests. His capacity to use force and to bring us before the courts can be chilling. His office requires sober maturity and recognition that incessant unsubstantiated attacks on the credibility of the media pose a threat to their safety and to our institutions of democracy.
Remember here his intemperate comments about the judiciary. The comments on the Sunday Express’ Facebook version of the story were largely not connected to the story but were designed to change the public dialogue. I shudder to think about the possible coordination of this agenda.
This story has too many loose ends and needs proper ventilation. Our criminal justice system deserves it. Long live the media!