Police Should Stop Trial By Media [opinion]

It has now become a trend – quite an uncomfortable one – that whenever police raids slums, lodges or other suspicious places, the media is tipped off and accompanies them on their missions.

The police are sloughing. They need a makeover. They have never recovered from the 2010 tragedy when several people were killed while watching the World Cup finals at Kyaddondo rugby club, and the Ethiopian restaurant at Kabalagala.

So, in an effort to shed off the image of a napping police force, they have embarked on a number of preemptive exercises in bars, hotels, lodges and clubs. And they feel whatever efforts that are deemed successful, be it arresting suspected prostitutes, pick pockets, thieves, murders and terrorists it must be brought straight to the people’s living rooms, through any possible media devices.

But the problem is that while it is laudable to rid society of thieves and terrorists, it is equally important to tread carefully not to injure the interests and images of the innocent. There is a principle of natural justice that every accused person has a right to a fair trial. And justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done.

The accused have a constitutional right to have a fair trial in the courts of law, by an impartial tribunal, uninfluenced by newspaper publications, television broadcasts or popular opinion, police station or officer.

Article 28 (3) (a) of the Constitution provides that every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty or until that person pleads guilty. And that person can only plead guilty before competent courts of law and not police (trials) or press conferences.

Recently, a senior police officer was killed as he arrived at his home in Wakaliga. The police vowed to hunt down the attacker. Last week, they paraded, before cameras, a group of people who were suspected to be car thieves, terrorists, rapists and murderers. Among these was one man who police said was the person that had killed their colleague.

The police spokesperson said they were sure he was the offender because he had confessed and he fitted the description of a short man who rides a boda boda. Police attempted to force the man to confess to the crime before the cameras but he refused.

There was also another one who was suspected to have stabbed his wife to death on suspicion of being adulterous. He too was forced to confess. I don’t know what police will do if eventually these suspects are freed by court for lack of evidence. Police cannot use public confessions, made before television cameras, as evidence in court.

A few days ago, another police-media blitz happened. In Makindye, a person, perhaps an illegal immigrant, was found without any identification papers. He had stayed in the guesthouse where a bomb was planted in 2010. Herds of camera-wielding journalists were organised to accompany the police to record every moment as they raided and carried out their mission.

He too was forced to explain his presence in Uganda to journalists. He couldn’t speak English, and matters were not helped when he appeared to look like the Arabs or Somalis. He was, straightway, labeled an al-Shabab suspected terrorist! Even if he were to be cleared later, he would probably never have chance clear his name before the media.

In this particular exercise, whether inaertently or out of sheer sloppiness, police blew the cover of the person who had alerted them about the presence of this suspicious person. This has dire ramifications on that person’s security and future employment.

One, if she did it without the approval of her bosses, she is likely to lose her job for jeopardizing business. The boss may not approve of terrorism but I would imagine he abhors intrusive employees, especially those who shop customers to police without his consent. Two, ideally police should have moved this informant to a new, unknown residence. Instead, her identity was revealed and she remained in the area.

The trend of arresting, condemning and trying suspects on camera is something that has caught the force like an epidemic. At times you see a police officer taking statements from suspects in front of camera, in total disregard of the police procedures of taking statements. How does one expect to get sufficient evidence in such a chaotic circumstance?

I would like to think this is not intended to get evidence but aimed at painting a picture of an active police force, weeding out crimes in the communities. Imagine being paraded as a prostitute when actually you are not. This is irreparable damage. The police’s effort may look like an attempt to prejudice trial because they have failed to harness the evidence needed to nail the criminals in court.

So, they would rather show people that it was the courts, which freed the criminals. The journalists should not assume the role of an investigator to try to prejudice the court against any person.In covering these arrests or parades, the media has a natural bias that favours police.

So, whoever is in police’s hands is automatically labeled a criminal, even without being heard. Heshe is vilified by the media and public whether or not the actual charges have any factual basis or legal merit.

It appears the police want the judges or magistrates who try these cases to read and watch these televised parades and decide cases according to the evidence adduced in the media trial and not before them. For what else can explain the cynicism of the police officers at Kawempe police station who said that these people are often released by court for lack of evidence, but this would not stop them from re-arresting them.

So, whose work is it to gather evidence courts or Police? Police should not pass the buck.

The author is the finance director of The Observer Media Limited.

Source : The Observer

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