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Police and the Media--How close is too close?

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    Police and the Media--How close is too close? - 2-Aug-2001
    By James Panichi
    The coverage of a recent double murder in Fiji has some media observers fearing the relationship between police and reporters has become too close for comfort. Crime reporters may pride themselves on establishing close relationships with police in an effort to obtain exclusive inside information for their stories, but where should the line be drawn?
    The concerns about the media's relationship with Fiji's police surfaced during investigations into the brutal murder of Fijian Red Cross Director John Scott, and his partner Gregory Scrivener, who were hacked to death on July 1.

    When the man charged with the murders, 23-year-old Apete Kaisau appeared before a magistrate for the first time, the allegations levelled against him by investigators had already been reported extensively by the media. Police Commissioner Isikia Savua had previously told reporters that Mr Kaisau had been motivated by an intense hatred of Mr Scott, whom he had met while still a student.

    Mr Savua also said the alleged killer had been incensed by the way he and other young people had been exploited to fulfill the sexual desires of his two victims. Such statements by the Police Commissioner along with the prompt way in which these and other allegations were reported would have fallen foul of "contempt of court" laws in many Commonwealth countries.

    According to Swasti Chand, the coordinator of Fiji's independent Media Watch organisation, the media's close relationship with authorities has led to unfair and even homophobic sentiments expressed by police being reported, often word for word. "We haven't had a court case, nothing has been proved by the courts yet, [they are] just theories and rumours floating around," she says. "The stories are not balanced, they are not fair. I say the media in Fiji has to be blamed for this mess".

    Police leaks: to report or not to report?

    Criticism of the media's coverage extends to both the way the Police Commissioner's statements were reported and the way the media used leaked information to paint a picture which could not be corroborated.

    Comments from police sources both named and un-named began to appear just days after the killings. When members of Mr Scrivener's family in New Zealand suggested the events may have been linked to Mr Scott's mediation work during last year's coup, police were quick to rule out political motivation. Three days after the discovery of the bodies, Police Commissioner Mr Savua revealed that the men had been tortured and suggested the violence was linked to the victims' lifestyle choices, saying "you must not forget that John Scott was a known homosexual."

    Fijian media: responsible, not gullible

    Media operators in Fiji have rejected the accusations of bias and gullibility and say local journalists reported events more responsibly than many of their foreign counterparts. They point to a recent report by New Zealand's 60 Minutes television current affairs program on the issue, which promised to reveal whether Scott and Scrivener were "saints or sinners" as evidence that the interest in allegations of sexual promiscuity transcends Fiji's borders.

    Richard Broadbridge, programming director at Fiji Television, says he is in no doubt that the issue was covered fairly. "Most of the information has come out officially through the Police Commissioner", Mr Broadbridge says. "But we've got our own little sources inside the police force, who a lot of our journalists are friends with.

    "Like any other media organisation, if there were any political motivation and there was proof, then we would report it. We are not here to protect our country's image. We do news like any other [organisation] which upholds journalistic values overseas".

    As for the issue of Mr Scott's homosexuality, Mr Broadbridge says Fiji TV covered the story fairly. "It was public knowledge that the men were gay, and that they had been living in a relationship together", Mr Broadbridge says.

    "When the press conferences came about, the issue of what these men were doing together was raised. It was clear they had been together for 15 years," he says.

    "In terms of the public, I don't know if that was necessary information, but it was certainly part of the news story".
    Ref: - ABC

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