Crime Blackout

2014-11-22 00:00

THE province’s police are at the centre of a wide-scale public relations exercise in what appears to be a well-orchestrated media blackout to keep rampant crime out of the news.

This as the police, with a management beset by scandals of corruption and ineptitude, have faced a lashing over rises in contact crimes including murder, house robberies and business robberies.

A Weekend Witness analysis revealed a well-oiled communications machine operating under the unwritten dictum that bad news be quashed so that stories of success take centre stage.

A look at the communication ­patterns of the police media centre over a month revealed that 75% of all ­information pushed into the public ­domain pertains to arrests and the ­sentencing of offenders.

During this same period, not a single press statement pertaining to incidents of violent crime was disseminated ­unless some police success was ­attached to it.

The police hit back, insisting their job was to fight crime and not play reporter on the fringes (SEE SIDEBAR).

Two months ago, national police management was left embarrassed after a claimed R3 billion methaqualone bust was downscaled to R20 million.

At the time, it was hailed as the biggest drug haul in South African history.

A senior crime intelligence official told Weekend Witness that since the blunder, there had been a blackout on drug raids.

“We have raided drug labs in ­Amanzimtoti and in Westville and none of it has hit the papers. There was an official instruction not to give this ­information to the media after what happened when the figures changed so dramatically,” he said.

A retired senior policeman, who asked not to be named, said the clampdown on information being given out had intensified since 2012. Prior to that, information about burglaries, robberies, attempted murders, murders, rapes and other serious crimes was disseminated a few times a day to the public via the local police communications ­offices to the media.

He said the police were accountable to the community to tell them what was going on in terms of crime. “It affects everyone.”

He said the government was also to blame for allowing the police ­communications machine to ­deteriorate to this extent.

“The government of the day is responsible for the internal security of a country. They in turn give the mandate for preventing and investigating crime to the police. Part of this is recognising that the police can use the media to ­enhance the image of the SAPS, but it appears that the current police communicators do not recognise this ­important aspect. The police always ask the community to be the eyes and ears of the police. How can they do this when they don’t know what’s going on in their communities?”

He said he also felt it was ridiculous that journalists now had to get all their crime information via the provincial media office. He said a police communications official sitting in Durban had little idea what had happened at the scene of a crime in Pietermaritzburg. It made far more sense that a police communications officer attended the scene of a crime they were commenting on.

“It’s like a return to apartheid days when all police communication was routed via Pretoria. The SA National Editors’ Forum [Sanef] must also share the burden of sorting this out.”

He said he felt the problem was exacerbated by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Solomon Makgale, a civilian, as the national head of police communications.

Claire Crawley of the Pietermaritzburg community policing forum said she believes communities “deserve to know what is happening around them at all times. It is important that the police warn and update the public so they can be vigilant and avoid any risks.”

• If you become aware of a serious crime in your area you think should be reported on, let us know. Call Jeff Wicks at 082 073 8565 or Stephanie POLICE spokesperson Major Thulani Zwane said they were mandated to highlight the successes of the police.

“By virtue of our appointment as police communication officers, it is our duty to ensure that we issue media statements on police successes.

“We do not have the capacity to issue a media statement on every crime that is committed as it will be virtually impossible, but will do so when incidents of a prominent nature occur.

“With regards to media enquiries, we expect journalists to do their own spade work as reporters and not expect us to do their ground work. With the sheer volume of enquiries on a wide range of issues that we receive on a daily basis, it would not be possible for us to spend large amounts of time on every enquiry, especially when most journalists ­demand a quick turn-around time,” he added.

Zwane said that resources were dedicated to fighting crime and that they had always endeavoured to ­assist the press.

“The primary function of the police is to fight crime and therefore we cannot afford to spend more manpower and resources on media issues than we already have. We will always endeavour to assist journalists to the best of our abilities within the confines of our restraints.

“The general feedback we get from journalists is very positive, as they often conduct their own research and investigation before seeking clarity or confirmation from police.”

JUSTICE Project South Africa chair Howard Dembovsky said the police were adverse to criticism and were therefore stonewalling the public.

“Giving the media detailed information is regarded as constituting a ­decision on the part of law enforcement on ‘need to know’, and they ­regard this need as being very limited indeed,” he said.

“I do feel that the police in South Africa are somewhat averse to exposure, particularly because of the fact that what comes out of crime statistics and what people see going on around them often differ considerably from one another. The police have a terrible reputation in the eyes of the public and whilst some of it is richly deserved, some of it really isn’t.

“What they doesn’t seem to realise is that the more they stonewall the public, instead of embracing it, the more negativity will arise from all of this. With a few exceptions, arrogance seems to be inbuilt and in fact a selection criteria in the police.”

A POLICE source within the communications environment said he waged a constant battle in getting information disseminated.

“At a station level we submit detailed releases with all the information concerning incidents of crime in our area that are of media interest. When we try and get these sent out through the provincial structures, they omit huge chunks from the releases so journalists on the receiving end get a one-line response,” he said.

“It gives the impression that we don’t know what we are doing. There has certainly never been a written instruction to limit the amount of information that is sent out, but that seems to be the norm,” he said.

Another independent police source echoed this, saying that detailed information he passed on was reduced to a trickle.

“That happens all the time. We spend hours on the phone to these people and then a single line is produced. It just doesn’t make sense.”

DEMOCRATIC Alliance shadow police minister Dianne Kohler-Barnard said that the unwillingness of police to communicate real-time incidents was an effort to protect the image of Riah Phiyega. “Her team have one mission only: protect Phiyega.”

She said that the annual release of crime statistics, when area specific numbers used to be released once a month, was adverse to fighting crime.

“Citizens should have real-time statistics at all stations so that they are able to check on happenings in their neighbourhoods rather than hoping they’ll hear on the street.”

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