NPA needs a media policy

TWO local celebrities have had their reputations correctly or incorrectly sullied in the past couple of weeks.

One is reputed to be a shameless woman basher, while the other is reputed to be a relentless golddigger.

While the merits of their respective cases are unknown to this writer, the two individuals have not helped their own cases much when granting media interviews.

This is perhaps the greatest irony: no one in their sober minds can represent themselves in court without sound legal advice, and yet some celebrities and government officials see no need to get professional advice when dealing with the media.

When a celebrity mismanages their reputation the resultant damage is minimal in that only the brand of the individual concerned is affected.

However, it is a different matter if a prosecutor mishandles a matter in the media as there is potential for the public confidence in the national prosecuting authority being undermined as a result of the handling of such a matter.

It is against this background that I think the recent furore over the reported decision by NPA head Menzi Simelane to bar prosecutors from talking to the media without prior approval from the provincial directors of public prosecutions (DPPs) is misguided.

Much of the cynicism around this decision is informed by Simelane's own reputation as a ruling party loyalist who places the independence of the NPA much lower on his priority list.

The NPA's communication and public relations machinery has its work cut out on this. With the cynicism aside, it is not difficult to see why the amendment to the NPA's media policy was overdue.

The advent of the NPA Act of 1998 meant that public prosecutions in this country would be centralised and not federated, as was the case before.

There is a single national prosecuting authority with its prosecutorial policy being derived from the centre. This means that all prosecutorial decisions must be compliant with national policy and in line with Simelane's leadership as national director ofpublic prosecutions.

The NDPP bears the final responsibility for the thousands of prosecutorial decisions that are taken by prosecutors throughout the country on a daily.

The communication of all such decisions remains the NDPP's final responsibility as well. It is therefore understandable why the NDPP would put in place a media policy that would ensure that the communication of the NPA's prosecutorial decisions is managed properly.

The NPA's head of communications Bulelwa Makeke has alluded to the "many issues" her organisation has had to deal with as a result of prosecutors speaking to the media out of turn.

One such example, which happened during my tenure as NPA spokesperson, was when a prosecutor proclaimed to the media that particular individuals, who had been accused of being mercenaries, would enter into plea bargains with the state.

Then NDPP head Vusi Pikoli was opposed to the move and ordered that the accused stand trial for their alleged crimes. The damage to the integrity and reputation of the NPA was sullied by the manner in which the matter panned out in the media. The NPA can ill afford such faux pas.

I am not familiar with the current NPA media policy. However, I do think that the policy needs to cover the need for all those who will be granted permission to talk to the media to undergo some media training.

This will be particularly important for prosecutors because statements they make to the media can affect their work in court, especially where the defence in criminal matters can accuse them of bias and/or pre-empting the court cases based on the utterances they make. Furthermore, they can be placed in the position no prosecutor wants to be in, where they may have to testify in court for statements they might have made to the media.

I would venture to say that prosecutors should as much as possible desist from making statements to the media on matters that are before court. Prosecutors should speak to the media mainly when the cases they litigate on had been concluded, when there are fewer chances of a fallout from miscommunication, being misquoted or being quoted out of context.

The NPA, given its history and importance in the entire criminal justice system, needs to invest in its reputation by beefing up its communication and public relations capability so that each province, or directorate of public prosecutions, has round-the-clock strategic communication advice.

Opposition parties and concerned citizens are correct in being vigilant in the protection of the NPA's independence.

But most of the criticism levelled at Simelane regarding the decision in question has been ill-informed.

The amendment to the NPA's media policy empowers the DPPs and not necessarily Simelane.

I wouldn't be surprised if it is the DPPs themselves who have agitated for the amendment.

lNkosi, a former NPA spokesperson, is chairperson of Makhosini Nkosi and Associates, a Johannesburg-based communication and public relations firm. He writes in his personal capacity