police on the media

This workshop is to try and find a solution to the challenges of information dissemination to the public via the media, as well as probe the manner in which the SAPS is portrayed in the media.

This workshop is to try and find a solution to the challenges of information dissemination to the public via the media, as well as probe the manner in which the SAPS is portrayed in the media.

Pre-1995, police and crime reporters met regularly to interact and exchange information.

Between 1995 and early the 2000s, the police and media continued to meet annually at national level where principals, such as the minister for safety and security and national police commissioner, were invited to address the media informally.

Strangely, 14 years into democracy, this tradition seems to have died. Crime reporters and police spokesmen only meet when there is a crisis or during a media conference.

I have often complained to colleagues responsible for media that I rarely, if ever, see journalists coming around to interact with our media liaison officials. I always get rhetorical answers that journalists do come and go.

However, I have not seen any in a long time. This is not good enough. We need to interact more and create a media-friendly environment. We must meet more often.

The lack of frequent meetings between us not only diminishes good relations between the police and media, but also robs both sides of knowing each other's work environment and procedures. This usually leads to uninformed reporting of issues, even encroaching on the ethics of reporting, thus creating animosity between police management and the media.

When we met in 2006 we agreed that:

lPolice officials would visit media houses to learn about how media work;

lNew or inexperienced journalists would visit police stations and learn how the reporting of the crime process is conducted, starting from the crime scene to going to court;

l Training of police officials by Sanef (SA National Editors' Forum) members on proper writing of media statements.

We have not even started with this. There is mutual blame for this. Perhaps there is a lack of communication, or it's simply due to a lack of commitment on both sides. There is a need for us to commit to our own promises.

We should endeavour to make accessibility and availability of information and spokesmen to the media simpler, not cumbersome and less bureaucratic. The media, too, should assign dedicated crime reporters on a more permanent basis or longer periods to improve the quality of reporting on crime- related issues.

We both need each other to do our work well. In order to achieve our objectives, we definitely need to be serious about our working together. Working together does not mean forgoing media independence, neutrality and freedom of expression. Nor does it mean police ignoring regulations and standing orders. All it means is that we should be sensitive to each other's needs.

The police communication officials should be accessible to the media at all times with relevant information needed. The media should be objective in their reporting of issues by ensuring that they get confirmation of stories from official sources rather than from anonymous ones.

Quoting out of context usually misleads readers or viewers. Hence written responses are preferable.

There are about 633 dedicated media liaison officers in the SAPS countrywide. We are also training existing members to be more efficient in their dealings with the media, as well as trying to recruit qualified media professionals to beef up our capacity.

While the training is without any doubt crucial, we must guard against the temptation of self-interest by individuals or groups who would use the opportunity to enrich themselves. Envisaged is in-service training.

The SAPS appreciates that the media is willing to sit with us and discuss matters of concern and of common interest. It is through this platform that we may find each other and improve our working relationships.

The media are also invited to visit our world-class forensic science laboratory to see how scientific investigations are conducted. We also take note of efforts by the media who dig deep to revive so-called cold cases in order to assist the police in bringing culprits to book. Cases such as the alleged murders of Rocks Dlamini, Pat Magadzi, the Mbhele sisters and many others spring to mind.

I also wish to appeal to the media to report sensibly on police ability and capability to deal with cases where no evidence is available. We rely on the public to provide reliable evidence which may lead to convictions. Of course, where there is dereliction of duty or bungling of investigation police management does not hesitate to take appropriate action.

Constructive criticism is healthy. However, negative reporting based on untruths does not augur well for the SAPS image. We need this image to be intact to enable us to carry out our mandate of fighting crime.

Sensational reporting may be good for revenue, but definitely not good for the SAPS image.

There is a developing unilateral reporting trend which does not afford the SAPS an opportunity to put matters into perspective. Surely, a wrong by an individual or a few individuals cannot realistically be interpreted as a general phenomenon or practice in the entire 173161 employees of the SAPS? The perception should therefore not be created in the media that the SAPS is the most corrupt or brutal police service in the world, simply because this is not true.

Recent reports, particularly on OR Tambo International Airport, have shown how some journalists went to the extreme and made disparaging attacks on a media liaison officer, thus encroaching not only on his privacy, dignity and integrity, but also endangering his life and that of his family.

My understanding is that journalists should not only be impartial, but they should also not descend to a personal level and be judgmental when reporting on issues.

In our quest for practising business unusual, I wish to invite the media to frequent our offices, not only for stories, but also to pay courtesy visits to familiarise yourselves with policing issues.

We need to create a habit of information-sharing on police activities and successes.

I will task a representative from my office to facilitate visits at the head office regularly.

We will also try to arrange interviews, where necessary and practical, with relevant role players within the SAPS.

This is business unusual.