Today’s Editorial for January 9: Press rules being ignored

After long and studied consideration, the Caymanian Compass feels it is finally time to bring to light some issues relating to press freedom in these islands.

The Saturday night arrest of a CITN 27 news reporter at a homicide scene outside a nightclub on Eastern Avenue has once again brought these long-brewing difficulties to the fore.

We’re not going to comment on the specifics of the case because police had not said at press time what would happen to the reporter who was arrested and later released. To make a long story short, both sides have vastly different versions of what occurred, which could ultimately be worked out in court if it gets to that point.

However, Compass journalists may well identify with the TV reporter’s situation as they have been interfered with, in despite of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service’s stated media policy, at numerous crime scenes and breaking news stories in the past couple of years.

In one instance, a Compass newsman taking video of marine unit crews bringing the victim of a diving accident ashore in George Town had his video camera taken away by a police officer.

In another case, one of our reporters taking pictures of a fire along North West Point Road was asked to hand over his camera to officers on the scene.

And in yet another instance, a Compass journalist snapping pictures of a fatal car crash at the end of a police chase was told they weren’t allowed to take photos.

There have been other instances of police improperly interfering with Compass reporters doing their jobs. We have repeatedly urged the RCIPS to take steps to correct this situation.

In April of last year, then-Acting Police Commissioner David George responded by sending us a letter detailing RCIPS media protocols. For the avoidance of doubt, we will print those here.

“Media will be allowed to get as close as possible to the actual scene without interfering with the lawful duties of police officers…provided that members of the media do not violate the law or directly interfere with an investigation. Officers shall not impede them…officers will not facilitate media requests for access onto private property. Media will not be allowed access to occurrences on private property without the express consent of the property owner and then only if it does not interfere with police investigations.

“When the media is denied access to an incident area due to crime scene processing or the collection of evidence they will be informed accordingly and will be permitted to have access as soon as possible.

“The media will not be asked to relinquish notes, film, cameras, recording devices or tapes. If these materials may be of assistance in a police investigation such materials may be obtained by court order.

“The police service cannot censor the media. If there are pictures taken or information is obtained that may adversely affect an investigation or prosecution, a request through the public relations officer to the appropriate editor asking to withhold the publication of the pictures or information will be made forthwith.”

Regardless of whether Saturday’s arrest of the CITN reporter was correct or wrongful, it is clear that this media policy has been violated on many occasions and that many RCIPS officers simply do not know of its existence, or don’t bother to follow it even if they do.

Unless Acting Police Commissioner James Smith has changed his mind, we are still operating under the same press policy with regard to police matters. If he has decided that officers should be allowed to freely interfere with the press without consequence, we will vigorously urge the Governor and anyone else who has input on the decision not to appoint him as full time RCIPS commissioner.

The existence of a free and fair press in any democratic society is absolutely as essential to the protection of its people as a well trained, well equipped police force. The press must be free to do its job without arbitrary interference.

We are still hopeful this will change in Cayman since the alternative is not something we believe anyone wants to contemplate.