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The Editor's Right

January 05, 2003
By Raffique Shah

LAST week the Express pulled off what I thought was a journalistic coup when a man who claimed to have been involved in a high-profile kidnapping came out of the woodwork to tell his story to the newspaper. It's a reporter's dream, really, to have some mysterious person, even a possible felon, walk into your office with a story as intriguing as that person's story was. With allegations of the involvement of rogue cops in the kidnapping, and careful checks by the reporter and her editors to verify, as far as was practical, the authenticity of the man's story, a decision was taken to "run with it". The front-page story was obviously as great one-which is an editor's primary concern.

Since its publication many people have criticised the Express for going against the wishes of Police Commissioner Hilton Guy, who had apparently asked the editor to hold back on the story. The police, I presume, will argue that the man's story could be a total fabrication designed to put the service in a bad light. They also say that its publication could hamper their investigations into the kidnapping, and particularly their probe of the possible involvement of the two officers.

That story, and the debate it provoked, brought to light what is often an editor's dilemma. Only those who have sat in that chair could tell of the considerations that come to mind when deciding to act on such stories. Indeed, the role of journalists and the media in dealing with criminals or suspected felons is a grey area with undefined boundaries. The journalist is always on the hunt for a good, exclusive story, and he knows that crime sells newspapers (those who condemn media houses for highlighting crime should try to sell stories on the price of cocoa in the face of a triple-murder). Yet, unlike the police, he enters into danger zones without the protection of weapons or authority.

The question most people might ask is why should reporters talk with criminals? Why not pass them on to the police and let the latter do their job? Well, besides the big story he's after, there are other considerations. For example, there's the safety of the felon, which might appear to be strange, especially if the person is suspected of having committed murder or other dastardly crimes. In this instance, the man confessed to the reporter that he had committed a major crime, kidnapping. But it was the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping that must have provoked the reporter's interest. And in this instance the alleged involvement of two policemen will have weighed strongly in favour of the newspaper not only carrying the story but also delivering the man into police custody safely.

When Anthony "Lizard" Bridgelal was on the run some years ago, he was considered by police to be one of the most dangerous among wanted felons. He was alleged to have been involved in a spate of murders and robberies. "Lizard" telephoned me (I was managing editor at the TnT Mirror at the time) seeking my intervention to have him give himself up safely. He, too, said he was afraid of rogue cops and while he was willing to "face the music", he felt he could not go to the police. Even though in my mind I was convinced that "Lizard" was deadly, I offered to help him come into custody safely. But Bridgelal balked, and even gave some "gun talk" when I spelt out the details. "Anthony," I said to him, "you could either come out on your feet or you could come out on your back!" "I will fight it out, Shah!" he said. A few days later he was dead meat somewhere on the hills of Paramin.

In the height of the cocaine wars in the 1980s-90s, reporters who pursued drug stories were in the firing line, quite literally at times. Drug lords would routinely call and threaten telephone editors and reporters whenever stories they believed referred to them appeared in the newspapers. And understandably, journalists were frightened. There were instances in which we played "hardball" and that no doubt helped us. But the truth is if those drug lords wanted us dead, we would not be alive today to write their epitaphs.

Hell, even the notorious Dole Chadee dealt with the media. He would also call editors with tall tales that one had to sift to see if there was any truth in them. Again, the names of certain police officers were mentioned as being involved in the trade. Their lifestyles betrayed them, indicating that what Chadee and Zimmern Beharry said must have had some truth in it. But the man was a criminal-though not yet convicted-and reporters and editors had to know how to deal with him and the information he supplied. I should add that at the funeral of a nephew that Chadee was said to have gunned down, when his goons verbally attacked reporters, it was Chadee who gave them safe escort to the house of mourning.

So when this young man walked into the Express offices last week, his story was, in the final analysis, the editors' judgement call. And I believe they called it right by going with the story. The media have a responsibility to the reading public, and had the editors chosen to ignore the man, to send him to the police, and, assuming he had met his death there, who would have believed what he had told the reporter before he died? Nobody.

At the same time, editors are acutely aware of matters of national security. When stories that come before them may appear to compromise some police or national security operation, they usually check very carefully before going to press. I know of instances in which editors have held back on such stories in the national interest. Those who are bashing the Express for carrying that story should instead be grateful that there are voices in the media that are prepared to buck the system in order to expose wrongdoing. Rogue cops are no different to corrupt politicians.

Those who praised the media for its role in exposing corruption in government over the past 10 years cannot now apply double standards-only because policemen are allegedly involved in criminal activities. The criminal cop and the corrupt politician are both cut from the same cloth, betraying the faith people put in them. Both must be brought to justice. If the onus for exposing corrupt policemen falls on the media, we must never shirk that responsibility.