Every morning, my vernacular radio station carries an announcement from the Provincial Police Officer in Nairobi on the “crime busting” within the past twenty four hours. In the print media, newspapers run catchy headlines on police shooting of criminals and robbers. Crime reporters in television are not left behind either.
Sadly, seldom do our reporters seek to interrogate further these reports unilaterally sourced from the “heroic” police officers. Even more, media are not witnesses to these “exchanges of fire” that always results into these killings. This is not to say that the Kenya police officers are not doing heroic services to the citizens. They do. However, this is not an open cheque for them to engage in deviant behavior without being accountable.
But the media are not solely to blame. Society, largely growing individualistic and indifferent to each other, has bequeathed on the media this culture of passive receptors; unquestioning, and gullible too.
Last week, the radio reported, police killed two notorious criminals in Dagoretti area in Nairobi. They recovered a Somali sword from them. This begs a few questions; what happened to use of reasonable force, or use of fire only to subdue a criminal escaping from safe custody or arrest? Are police officers justified to kill alleged criminals? Are these suspected criminals not protected by the laws that guarantee due process of law?
In the same area a few days earlier, about eight other suspected criminals were gunned down. Again, it was after an exchange of fire. But what the police didn’t explain, and the media never asked, is how two of them could have engaged in the exchange when they were killed in their houses. This is replicated in many middle and low level suburbs of the city and other towns in Kenya.
A few years ago, when the crackdown on proscribed groups in Kenya was intensified, incidences of police excesses and extra judicial killings became almost an acceptable official policy. The Alston report, with its many weaknesses, offers some sobering reading.
But it is the role of media in these killings that is worrying. It is the complicity of our journalists that should concern us most. The omission to be the public watchdog, to ask the hard questions. It is the sugar-coated reporting of these extra judicial killings and portrayal of these officers as heroes that has a dangerous multiplier effect within the police service. Ultimately, deviant behavior is amplified in the force, and in the larger society. Today, every time police officers kill suspects, the first call made is to the media. This creates a desire for the force to engage in unacceptable conduct that is justified through uncritical reporting.
Again, when certain police officers are labeled as crime busters, no nonsense, and such other pet terms, it again creates the desire for some other overzealous officer(s) to also get noticed. And this can only happen through meting more violence and death on the suspected criminals and innocent victims alike.
How, then, can society act responsibly if it is not well and accurately informed? And who has the responsibility to offer this unbiased, critical and objective reporting when the media becomes co-opted and cultivated by the Kenya police to sanitize deviant behavior?
Today, as our country moves to a middle level economy, and its attendant challenges like crime, the role of police in enforcing the law authoritatively is critical. But this must be done with fairness, and within the same laws that the force seeks to enforce.
The media, on the other hand, have the duty to promote responsible policing and accountability. This can not happen in the obtaining environment where deviance is amplified and negligence justified. Questions must be asked, answers sought, and investigations conducted. Simply, the opinion of the police is not all a reporter needs to cruise to the newsroom to (mis)inform the audiences who often have more credible information that is never sought.