Police: Old wine in new bottle-skins

Mabasa Sasa

Mabasa Sasa

Nathaniel Manheru THE OTHER SIDE
I SEEK reader indulgence in breaking a promise I made last week. I had committed this column to a follow-up article on the wider pointers beyond the media issues I dealt with. Little did I know that new developments would occur, developments calling for immediate intervention to the extent that their portents for the realm are quite ominous, very ominous in fact. And inadvertently, this column has been implicated, has been viewed as a forerunner to, and justification for those two inauspicious developments.

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Hundred dollars apiece
I am talking about the Monday and Tuesday arrest of Zimpapers journalists by the Police on allegations of publishing damaging falsehoods in the case of the Sunday Mail trio, and for soliciting for a bribe in the case of the Herald newsman. Both matters are before the courts, with the police bid to block bail, itself a constitutionally guaranteed right, falling miserably flat. And the amounts charged by the courts for bail are indicative: $100 apiece for the three from Sunday Mail; $50 for the Herald newsman. Equally indicative are sentiments attributed to the magistrate presiding over the court. He did not sound amused by the bail stance taken by the prosecuting authority. This is about all that can be said about the case which is before the courts, a factor which thus imposes limitations on coverage and on comment.

48 hours and so what?
But there is something which is not before the courts, thankfully. Neither Zimpapers nor the accused have challenged the Police action of arresting and detaining the newsmen in order to make a case for the courts. Not their continued holding in cells for 48 hours in the case of the Sunday Mail, something covered by the law. The Police upheld that requirement of the law and are thus on all fours technically. Only technically. The Police exercised their arresting discretion, mindful of the limits imposed by the law. If the attitude of one of their number I spoke to yesterday is anything to go by, they are mightily pleased with themselves. That senior officer bragged that there is a way of securing a retraction from the press without having to ask for one! And more such tricks are available, he added, face exhibiting gratuitous self-satisfaction. He did not seem to care about court outcomes, bodily showing satisfaction that the Police had evened out with an errant media. We are in for hard times, if the senior police Office is indicative of the Force.

Governing with legitimacy
I said the Police satisfied the requirements of the law and the courts. But the law and formal courts are just one dimension of evaluating human actions, one plane for judging institutional conduct in society. There is another dimension: that to do with public opinion, what some people call the court of public opinion. It is informal, yet critical, more so when it comes to governments and their actions, when it comes to governments whose prime capital is legitimacy conferred by the governed. True, all governments do govern; good governments do and are seen to govern justly.

The governed have to feel justly governed, which is why the notion of legitimacy goes beyond compliance with, or merely acting within the confines of, the law. It means doing that and much more, principally acting in a manner that passes the test of conscionable-ness, acting within the larger expectations of the society that receives and suffers your actions, receives and suffers and the consequences of your actions. It is this consideration which makes it imperative for agencies of government — the Police especially — to always remember it is less about what the law allows, more about what society’s sense of justice, fairness and reasonableness demands. My good senior officer seemed sedately oblivious to this key requirement of legitimate governance: that a brutally lawful action may be woefully illegitimate in the eyes of the people, indeed that those looking for legitimacy need to go beyond what the law permits but what society may still decry.

Press and public relations department
In between formal courts and the court of public opinion is another layer: the administrative layer. This layer refers to rules and expectations that bind a bureaucratic system, parameters that set limits to actions of persons and departments that make up a system. And system is the watchword, something which implies a formation whose constitutive parts work in harmony, to common purpose and towards a common end in the case of a governing bureaucracy, all to augment legitimacy by fulfilling both formal and informal expectations, indeed by upholding the law and a given society’s collective sense of right and wrong.

The one administrative feature which the current Police Commissioner General (CG) has introduced to policing structures is that of a Press and Public Relations Department. From its formative days when it was a mere unit appended to the Office of Commissioner of Police, and headed by a low-ranking officer, that unit morphed into a full-fledged department initially headed by an Assistant Commissioner. Today it is headed by a whole Senior Assistant Commissioner.

Soft and hard power
Both by creation and by rank, this formation bespeaks of the CG’s recognition of the importance of image building in the Police Force. A recognition that the image cannot be built by tools of coercion his Force wields: the hand, the baton, the handcuff, the teargas, the cell, the gun, in that lethal order. Or by a strict, reflexive enforcement of the law in the wrong-headed spirit of one-law-for-all situations. An understanding that cultivating goodwill through sustained and sustainable relations with communities where policing work occurs, brings far more dividend to the Force than swinging brawn and baton, by a charging Force akin to Rhodesian days.

And this would seem consistent with a piece attributed to the CG only days before the arrest and detention of Zimpapers journalists: his exhortation that policing required thinking. And also consistent with what the CG had personally achieved a few weeks before: a doctorate which principle thrust was on the evolution and changing methods of policing right from pre-colonial times. That qualification is no mean achievement, being one which makes the CG much more than a security officer, to become a man of ideas. Or should. The Americans talk of weapon of first resort: dialogue, charm, compassion, knowledge and persuasion, collectively known as soft power. This is why they gave the world State Department, USIA, United States Information Agency, USAID, Peace Corps and many other tools of persuasion and fawned goodness. The Americans, too, talk of weapon of last resort: war, which is why they inflicted a vast army, murderous CIA, lethal technology and Guantanamo, upon the same world. The other name for the weapon of last resort is hard power. Governance has always been about the judicious and calibrated interplay between these two forms of power. That the CG unleashed a PR Department, but without dismantling Black Boots, suggests he knows and uses both dimensions in policing. Knows the link between both dimensions of power and the whole question of legitimacy.

Favoured with continuity
Further, the Police are an organ of State and Government. They serve the government of the day, pledge loyalty to, and serve the only State of Zimbabwe. The immediacy of their services to a sitting government does not diminish their transcendental and timeless role in the service of the State. They are an abiding institution, in other words, alongside other constitutional bodies marking and guaranteeing institutional and behavioural continuities within the State. More important, they are the only organ of coercion allowed to use graduated force in peacetimes, without necessarily suggesting a breakdown in the rule of law. An institution which society in peacetime trusts with wide ranging power, including lethal power. It is a huge responsibility, one weighing onerously on a sitting commissioner general and his senior staff, to the extent that these give general direction to the whole Force.

When consulting is not surrendering independence
In serving both Government and the State, the Police never act alone, and should not act alone. Nor should they feel alone, both in the positive sense of being unsupported, and in the negative sense of feeling the messianic ultimate, the final rampart in the defence of Government and the State. They work alongside, and in consultation with, other organs of State and Government. They fall under a ministry, report to a Government and account to a State. There is no room for absolutist thinking, of untrammelled power, and unaccountable action. Instancing this particular occurrence, there is the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, itself Government’s expression of a wish to employ soft power as a first resort. It has to be taken into account.

That Ministry writes rules for, and polices the field of the media, whatever the Police might think about it. Lately it has been engaged in a robust debate with the industry, giving clear indications the architecture of the industry as about to be rebuilt. The Police are a key stakeholder in this process. Above all, it is the point-ministry for government-related investments in the media, to which Zimpapers which employs the four accused journalists, falls. What has stunned this Nation is just how the Police, acting in the name of the same people, State and Government which create both Departments, did not feel enjoined to consult or even inform this key Department.

Yes, the law gives the Police arresting powers; it does not suggest consultations in Government have become superfluous. And this is the second time the Police have done so, after the Baba Jukwa thing which came to a spectacular crash, vastly diminishing government legitimacy in the eyes of the governed.

On behalf of creation?
Then you have sister security departments, the Office of the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Presidency, the Bench, etc, etc. It is a web, a whole matrix of inter-linkages and reciprocal influences which creates a formidable ecology for the bureaucracy. Or should, if a system has to subsist and function. And that matrix is also the resource available to the Police in going about its lawful business, including interacting with other institutions in society, whether routinely or in times of misunderstanding and conflict.

Unless there is no sense of collegiality or faith in related agencies, one expects the Police to use this vast institutional resource at their disposal. As things stand, the Police’s tall and large claims to be acting on behalf of the Security Establishment, the people, the Nation and even “creation”, rings hollow, pretentious and even sickening. If you can’t consult with a small ministry, how do you claim to act on behalf of creation? And does not the CG hear grunts of dissent from his colleagues in the Security Establishment and in Government? Or does he not want to hear them? What is more, is he alive to the legitimacy crisis he triggers for the whole system?

Where the rain began to beat us
The Monday and Tuesday action by the Police portent ill and grave for this country. It has to stop, and silence does not help in this and other aforequoted cases. A few hard points must be made for the Commissioner General’s consideration. It does not suggest a sound democracy when petty, journalistic reports attract disproportionate responses from those who wield awesome power, wield it in trust. The damage to our image as a responsible, fauna-guarding society came from our inability to protect wildlife in the first place, and from our inability to provide answers for the horrendous carnage when it did, and when the world asked questions. And by the time the Sunday Mail reports, the world has already seen hideous images of savaged, de-tasked elephant cadavers. That’s when our image and tourism industry took a knock, not the Sunday

Mail report. What remained of us in the whole saga was our part or lack of it in the actual carnage, and showing and proving to the world we could be trusted to mind fauna within our borders. And that would be done through thorough, un-selective investigations that takes the world to definite conclusions. And of course by taking measures that show a society seriously intent on defending its wildlife heritage. I happen to know that the latter is being done, and the world will see, sooner rather than later, that Zimbabwe does not tolerate abuse of its fauna.

Mourning after
But when the foremost investigating arm of the country reacts with astonishing severity to a news report which, alongside the rest of society, asks questions and teases out answers, the world begins to raise new questions against us who are already fallen. Why are they drawing a revolver, the world asks? The story out there is not that the Sunday Mail made an allegation; it is that the Police reacted with panic that spawned high-handedness. The Police have invited incriminating speculation to the whole system, and actions which do that do not defend the security establishment, the government, the Nation, let alone creation. They simply don’t, and no tall claims makes them do. We lost the elephants; we dented our tourism. Today we have lost our image and integrity which are under questioning. Today, we have lost our lustre as a democracy where free media report, debate and flourish the morning after, rather than mourning after. The Police cannot hope to carve out a good image for itself through actions that indict the whole system.

The dog that does not eat dung
And our detractors have been quick to take full advantage. The whole foreign-funded media lobby is gleeful, now making a loud case for continued threats to media freedom as never before, and the need therefore for more foreign advocacy and funding. And their argument is simple: see what they do to their own media; what more with the private press! And just the ugliness of a Misa defending Zimpapers reporters! Aah, Cde CG! And worse media “offenses” had been committed by the media, if the Police template of judgement is something to go by. Without the Police batting an eyelid. Is the Police more sacred than the First Family which endured incessant abuse far more severe than can ever be done by the Sunday Mail report magnified a million times? Or is the message that don’t touch the Police, they are righteous? And as events would have it, this whole week stories on police foibles have been doing headlines across media titles. So? The stance of the CG should never be one of bellicosely asserting the presumed righteousness of his juniors; it should be a stance of communicating a readiness to investigate where allegations are made. And speak after clearing his officers. Never to arrest before all else.

The Shona put it graphically: no sound-minded owner swears by his mother that his dog does not eat human dung. Managers of big Government departments know that. By using handcuffs as weapon of first instance, the CG has communicated a sense of regal impunity to his juniors; they now do not have to strive for righteousness, bragging that whatever happens in the media, we have a CG, handcuffs and cells, and newsmen have not. It is a terrible confidence to have in a democracy.

Handcuffs that overtake charm
Reading through the Press Release issued by the Police spokeswoman, herself head of Press and Public Relations, makes one really despair. Firstly, the release gives key information which could have changed the direction of the Sunday Mail report, had it been volunteered when she was invited to participate in the story. And the timelines given to the information suggests this information was available to the Force from as far back as August. Why was it not given to the Sunday Mail to prove the Police were hard at work, even with salutary results? Indeed to prove to the world community Government was doing something sterling about the carnage? Was the idea to entrap?

As a PR practitioner, she must now be engulfed with a sense of utter failure now that police handcuffs have overtaken the courtship process in which she is the lead actor. That is if she has professional scruples. Her role is to play buffer between the hard armour of policing and the media so both never get a chance to gravitate towards hard-hat zone. To interpose, that is, not to rationalise awful actions that would outrage even a PR beginner.

An operational superfluity?
The contents of the release suggest a Police Force helplessly hidebound, and completely oblivious to the advent of the new Constitution and the changed professional behaviours which it calls for. For the officer, journalism remains a “privilege”; efforts to force journalists to disclose sources still appear part of lawful policing; journalistic zeal is cured through arrests; allegations of peddling falsehoods are a substitute for demonstrating truth, or proving falsehoods before a court of law. Much worse, all previous judgments on the relevant criminal laws don’t seem to have happened as far as the Police are concerned. Surely the Police do have a legal department which must test Police releases? And why have a whole sprawling Press and Public Relations Department if your first instance is handcuffs and cells? Why waste taxpayer’s money on an operational superfluity? And the fact that the issue at stake, as the Police claim, is about the image of the Nation, does that not disqualify them as actors at all, let alone lead actors? The Police are not the public relations department of Government, surely? And as this case shows, they don’t have the skills, to serious detriment of this society.

Legitimacy versus legalism
But just as well this arrests have occurred before the retreat on Impi. There has to be ways of buttressing media rights which the Constitution offers to journalists, including putting very strict stricture on pre-trial punishment which the Police appear to delight in, and gloat about in this instance, if my short interaction with one of their number yesterday is anything to go by. This column has been in the lead in attacking the media for unprofessional conduct. But the cure cannot be in abusing the 48-hour clause in the law to arrest, detain and instil fear, yes to diminish and attenuate rights which the Constitution grants. Journalism is not a privilege; it is a constitutionally guaranteed practice, the same way policing is. There is no big brother, never is on constitutional matters.

There is complementarity which can’t be achieved by swinging handcuffs, and battering the dignity and egos of those who have done just as well in their sphere, in the defence of the realm. They deserve respect, space. Above all, far more important than enforcing the law is upholding its libertarian bedrock and spirit. And far more helpful to Government is cultivating legitimacy, not punishing it through dry legalism. Please Mister CG, help the Force police within the confines of the Constitution, by its letter, yes, but more important, by its spirit. And within rules and imperatives of coordination and collegiality in Government. I beg you, Sir.


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