ISAAC PHIRI, Lusaka
IN OCTOBER 2017, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), an American magazine for professional journalists that has been published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, reported an interesting incident that happened between police and journalists.
Reporters working at the Chicago Sun-Times did what most conscientious journalists do when working on something sensitive: and that is to knock on the doors of those people they intend to write about.
The report in the CJR, whose content includes news and media industry trends, analysis, professional ethics, and stories behind news, read: “In this case, the people behind those doors were police officers. And the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents most of Chicago’s 12,000 rank-and-file officers, took exception. Martin Preib, the second vice president and union spokesman, penned a ‘cease and desist’ letter to reporters Tim Novak and Robert Herguth:
“’Their private residence should remain free from media access. Your use of this tactic is unprofessional and unethical, and is further illuminative of your publications’ general bias against the police.
“’I am informing my members not to speak to either of you, or any Sun-Times reporter, if they come into the private residence. I am further advising them to call the police and sign complaints for trespassing if you refuse to leave.’
“The Sun-Times had just published a story about what happens when Chicago Police Department officers are caught abusing alcohol or drugs. The city’s scrappy tabloid, responded with the kind of blunt, spare prose it’s known for.
“’Chicago needs a great police force,’ the paper editorial board wrote. Chicago also needs great journalism. So, Mr Preib, you do your job and we’ll do ours. You keep the city safe. We’ll keep the city informed.”
The CRJ made the observation that naturally, the relationship between the media and police is fraught with tension and a central ethical quandary: Reporters rely on police to serve as sources on crime and other public safety issues, even as they function as a check on police power.
It is an observation also made by Edetaen Ojo, executive director of the Media Rights Agenda (MRA), chairman of the board of directors of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), member of the board of International Media Support (IMS) and co-chairman of the National Steering Committee, Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Nigeria.
“The relationship between the media and security agencies, including those in the law enforcement and intelligence services, has always been a delicate one,” Ojo writes in a foreword to a report titled, Strengthening Police and Media Relations for the Safety of Journalists and Peaceful, Free and Fair Elections in West Africa’
“In the West African context, this relationship is often characterised by frequent clashes, arising from a somewhat startling inability of either side to fully appreciate the role of the other in society, particularly in democratic governance.”
Zambian journalists can relate.
The Bloggers of Zambia have been implementing an initiative aimed at enhancing the safety of journalists and improving the media-police relationship to protect free expression and access to information.
They believe this will contribute to defending the shrinking civic and democratic spaces and safeguarding of human rights.
“The media and security forces are both essential for peace-building and ensuring peace and security,” the concept note reads.
“For instance, during elections, the public relies on the media for credible, fact-based information about candidates’ political manifesto and agenda, the electoral process and security issues.
“At the same time, political parties and candidates, interest groups, and other key stakeholders such as the electoral commission, election observers, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders also rely on the media for disseminating information on emerging issues hence issue based media reporting and adhering to journalistic ethics as the media clarifies issues and for expressing any concerns to the public.”
But they note that journalists often find themselves in the midst of competing interests, which culminates in them often being targets of threats and physical attacks simply for doing their work.
“And it is often in many instances that there are skirmishes or attacks against journalists at the hands of the law enforcement officers especially police,” they note.
“This, coupled with legitimate processes by journalists to obtain and disseminate accurate information to the public may sometimes run counter to or conflict with operations by the police, leading to challenges between journalists and the police. This sometimes results in relationships marked by misunderstandings and mistrust.”
The Bloggers of Zambia founder and chief executive officer Richard Mulonga says one way to address such issues is to create a space for dialogue.
Mr Mulonga says one recommended best practice is by providing space for dialogue between media and the police to provide at least a starting point for mutual understanding and better working relations.
“There is a need for creating space for dialogue with the police to create awareness on the role of media, the importance of journalists’ safety and of respecting journalistic work. Likewise, such a space provides an opportunity for journalists to better understand what limitations they face when faced with the work of the police,” he says.
“As such, there needs to be a concerted effort in developing best practices regarding interventions protecting and promoting the role of the media in strengthening democratic structures particularly during electoral periods, whether local government, mayoral, parliamentary or presidential elections.”
With that, journalists and police officers from various districts in Southern Province met in Livingstone last month to discuss challenges and opportunities affecting the police and the media working relationship in the province.
The meeting was officiated by the Livingstone deputy mayor John Lilema and had representation from the Southern Province Commissioner of Police, the Livingstone Press Club, Bloggers of Zambia and other participants drawn from Mazabuka, Livingstone, Monze, Choma, Namwala, Kalomo, Zimba and Kazungula districts.
After Zambia Police deputy spokesperson Rae Hamoonga made a presentation on rights and responsibilities of the police and Bloggers of Zambia chief executive officer Richard Mulonga presented on the rights and responsibilities of Journalists in a democratic framework, a joint communique was issued.
In the communique issued at Wasawange Lodge, police and journalists in Southern Province agreed to enhance their communication in order to improve sharing and access to information for journalistic work.
They also agreed to jointly undertake trainings of journalists and police officers to develop an understanding of each other’s individual roles and responsibilities in a democracy and initiate interactive meetings between journalists and police with the aim of reducing all forms of physical and other forms of confrontations and misunderstandings between them.
They also committed to observe each other’s work to avoid confrontations especially during events such as elections and peaceful or violent demonstrations.
But they also went further to propose that media institutions consider taking out insurance policies for their news staff as well as investing in safety equipment and attire for their when working in conflict areas.
ISAAC PHIRI, Lusaka