Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why the reservation to name names?

(Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 15 May 2011)

There are times when in writing this column I have had an exchange of words with my editors concerning the naming of names concerning perpetrators of crimes.  I have to admit that I do not understand the concept of protecting criminals, but that seems to be the norm in Guyanese journalism.

I was taught that anything that was a matter of public record could and should be included in the news to keep the public informed.  The only times when there is an exception made to this rule is to protect victims (particularly in the case of sexual aggression) or a child under the age of 18. All other information belongs to the public.

For example, I wrote a column on December 08, 2010, about a Chief Medical Officer accused of domestic violence against his wife. The incident was a matter of public record as the police were involved in the report, but the man’s name was taken out of my column.

I respect my editors’ opinion on this issue, although I do not agree with the premise that everyone already knows the identity of the perpetrators. I also feel the public has a right to know the full story – not the edited one. 

Another instance of not naming names is when a businessman who held a birthday party in December at Buddy’s Night Club and decided around 5AM to set off fireworks. The businessman’s name was not published by one newspaper in this country.

Even for smaller matters, names are not published, like last month when a teacher at a secondary school in Region Two (Pomeroon/Supenaam) was sanctioned by his headmistress for comments he posted on his Facebook wall. Why on earth would the name not be published?

I do not support the view that criminals should be protected from the media spotlight.  In fact, I wholly maintain that this information should and must be made public.

I have long watched with frustration to see both Stabroek News and my own Kaieteur News, remove the most vital information – the names of the criminals – from their reports.

Even when it comes to providing the names of government officials and public workers who have “misbehaved,” like when they hit a person on the road, their name is withheld. If such a thing happened in the US, Canada, etc., the entire nation would know the full story within a matter of minutes.
At first I thought this omission of names applied only to those whom some call the “untouchables.” And though I am sure it applies to this group in greater measure, it also applies to the rest of society as well – as is evident by the story about the teacher who posted comments on Facebook.
Therefore, one must assume this is a policy.

However, I could agree with not publishing the name of the teacher because it is a minor issue that had been lightly punished.

I cannot agree with the withholding of names of individuals who are high officials and have committed a crime. Nor can I agree that the media should protect a businessman who has broken the law.

I question this policy as I see it as a detriment to journalism in Guyana. There have been journalistic debates on whether to name the names of rape victims and minors, but it has long been an acceptable practice to name criminals and to keep the public fully informed of the actions concerning their public officials.

What is the reason for shielding those who break the law? Consider this; could it be that such protection of criminals by the media is one of the reasons criminals feel the freedom to do as they wish? I do believe this to be the case in part.

Of course, criminals must answer to the law for their unlawful acts, but if the local media does not publish their names, they do not have to answer to the community. Moreover, the community does not know of the crimes committed by these law-breakers – because the media did not publish names – and that makes the community vulnerable to the criminals’ next crime.

It is not law enforcement’s job to inform the community of such things. It is the job of the journalist. When we do not provide the full information regarding crimes, like the names of who committed the crime, we do a great disservice to those who consume our news – whether through newspaper or television.

It seems that everything is turned around in this situation. We are protecting the criminals and leaving the community exposed to harm when we should be protecting the community and exposing the criminals.

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