INACCURATE MEDIA REPORTS ON THE SOLOMON ISLANDS SITUATION

admin's picture

VIEWPOINT

 

DURING THE ONSET OF THE ETHNIC CONFLICT

August 23, 2002

By Frank Short, CBE Email:

Introduction

When speaking at the World Media Freedom Day seminar held at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, during May this year, Dr. Tarcisius K Tara, the well-known Solomon Islands politics lecturer, spoke about the Pacific media's democracy role.

In his customary well-presented address, Dr. Tara made two important statements, which attracted my attention. In the first of these, he said, "Does the media in our region facilitate democracy both in terms of its contents as well as its accessibility? In terms of content, we need to ask whether or not the media provides accurate and adequate information that is necessary for facilitating democracy." In his second reference he said, "Does it (the media) facilitate for different opinions? Who should have access to the means of communication and how should this access be used? The more voices we have in the media, the greater our ability to avoid biases and inaccuracies. This will facilitate democracy."

In the context of what Dr. Tara said about the use of the media, I would like to examine his references to accurate, adequate information -- and access to the media -- to illustrate how the absence of accurate, adequate information by just a few journalists influenced my morale (and the Police) during the situation in the Solomon Islands at the onset of the ethnic troubles -- to the detriment of democracy -- by damaging police-public relations and the overall effectiveness of the police service in investigating crime and conducting operations.

Firstly, though, a couple of comments about the role of the media. I happen to share the views of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Senior Minister and former Prime Minister, who was once quoted as saying of the media in developing societies, "The media has a duty to galvanize the people behind the government and its policies to facilitate the country's efforts to make material progress."

There is no doubt the mass media today is a powerful instrument and few will question its influence in shaping attitudes and influencing behavior. It is for this reason that, while believing in the need for a free press and the right to freedom of opinion and expression, I also consider the freedom to say what one likes cannot be absolute and a person's right not to be wrongly or unfairly maligned must be protected. Indeed, most countries now have laws designed to protect the individual against the publication of material that reflects unfairly or falsely on a person's character and reputation. The collective word for such laws is defamation.

Background - Material Shortages and Valuable Assistance

When I was first appointed Commissioner of Police in the Solomons in July 1997, I was dismayed to find on arrival in Honiara that the members of the Police were struggling to carry out their duties and to maintain basic services. Most of the telephones were disconnected due to the non-payment of accounts, very many of the police buildings were in a poor state of repair or had simply collapsed, in the provinces, during earlier cyclones, equipment was broken down, most of the transport, including the few small boats and canoes, were inoperative due to broken parts or broken outboard motors, the members had no change of uniform and operational duties were extremely limited due to fuel shortages (some provincial police stations had had no fuel for six months or more), living quarters were in a very bad state and, at Temotu and Auki, they were threatened with closure by the health authorities as being unfit for habitation. Add to this the fact that the Police sometimes did not receive their salaries on time because of the then poor state of the Government's finances. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the morale of the police was poor and public opinion of the police service was judged at an all time low.

There was a change of government in August 1997, a month after I took office, when the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change (SIAC) was voted into power. The incoming Government, although faced with a massive debt burden on assuming office and further hindered by the suspicious burning down of the Finance Building, soon began to address the economic situation as well as working on public sector reforms. Progress was well in hand with the vital economic reforms by the time the Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival was successfully hosted in Honiara in July the following year.

There had been some modest progress, too, in the reform of the police service by mid-'98 with improved morale, enhanced service delivery and a lessening of crime in Honiara and throughout the provinces. A substantial gift of police vehicles by the Government of the Republic of China had helped ease the transport problem and with an increase in the budget allocation, the members of the Force had been issued with new uniform items, which improved their appearance on duty.

A program of community policing had started on Guadalcanal and with the financial backing of the New Zealand and British Governments the White River Police Post was built with police labor and officially opened in the presence of both the New Zealand and British High Commissioners. Many of the urban centers of population, as well as those in the east and western areas of Guadalcanal began to be regularly visited by community police liaison officers in the latter part of 1997 and throughout the next year. On the island of Malaita, the community readily embraced the community policing concept and the Loina community, in particular, contributed and built their very own Neighborhood Police Post.

The Commissioner of the Singapore Police Force kindly contributed many items of surplus uniforms and also facilitated the attachment of the Deputy Police Commissioner and several other senior police officers on Community Policing seminars, which were conducted in Singapore and in Japan. These seminars proved highly beneficial to the attendees and contributed to the early success of the community policing programs.

The Australian Federal Police also contributed, in no small measure, in providing much needed uniform and with specialist training. In addition, the Australian and New Zealand Defense Forces contributed to the improvement in administration and training, as well as supplying much needed logistical equipment.

Another major factor in boosting police morale was the substantial injection of funds provided by the Government of the Republic of China for the repairs and renovation of police housing at Rove and, later on, in the provincial centers.

One cannot overlook the assistance also given by the Governments of the United States, Britain and Japan who provided training and rendered practical help in other ways -- in particular the Japanese Government assisted the Fire Service -- as indeed so did the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

Use of the Media

Faced with a critical shortage of everything from paper, copiers, computers and telephones, to inform the members of the police service of the changes taking place in their operations, training and welfare, but also to promote openness and transparency, I began issuing regular press statements (mostly typed on my own typewriter) to get the right kind of message across. The realization was that successful innovative policies depended on good police-public relations. There was the realization, too, that operational effectiveness would be impaired over a range of activities, including public order issues and in the prevention and detection of crime without the full cooperation and understanding of the public.

It was my intention to eventually create a small press office at police headquarters, staffed by trained personnel, to manage and promote the police image in the media to convey a positive image to the public generally, but also to ensure the "image" would be backed up, acted out and enhanced by the workforce.

In line with the development of media policies in most police organizations, it was my intention to seek outside training courses for the personnel selected to staff the press office. I considered that, ultimately, an effective media office would address the aims and objectives of policy, including guidance to police personnel concerning liaison with the press office and with the media.

It was unfortunate that there were some in the community that considered my regular media releases to be "attention grabbing" and they neglected to see the wider picture in the context of my bid to enhance police morale and standards of behavior, as well as accountability.

Criticism and Reaction in the Media

In an article published in the Solomon Star on July 28 1999, the contributor wrote, as part of a full length feature, "Of the thousands of people who have been victimized by the national inter-ethnic ordeal, the former Solomon Islands Police Commissioner, Frank Short, rather oddly is among the hardest hit.

"From its shadowy beginnings in the parliamentary attempt to oust the Prime Minister last year to its current stage, the ethnic crisis has seen Mr. Short subjected to character-assassinations of one form or another.

"Mr Short, for example has been called a racist, criticized as a Police Commissioner who loves being in the media spotlight, and criticized as exercising tough policies that deprive Solomon Islanders of their democratic freedom of expression and assembly.

"In the same vein, he has also been insulted by being ordered by a Member of Parliament to pack up and leave.

"As issues unfolded his life and his job hanged in suspension as his dismissal is being called for by the GRA as one of the demands that must be met by the Central Government if true peace and reconciliation are to be achieved."

In other references in the same article, the writer said, "The unfortunate twist of irony in all this (dealing with the allegations) is that, in only giving partial information to the public about their demands and allegations, those making the allegations have unwittingly given themselves a rather lethal blow. They have done this by way of exposing themselves and having their credibility and motives questioned, ridiculed and trashed by the public.

"Mr Short, on the other hand, has emerged from the ashes of his character assassination not only purged of any wrong-doing but shown to be principled -- as he should be.

"What this shows, of course, is that democracy, the potent force that it, is not so easy to silence.

"Thousands of us can admit that only months ago our Police Force was in such a listless state of existence that police officers on duty around Honiara, for example, were an eyesore.

"(With) the lack of confidence, dignity and professional savvy visible in a crisis situation, one was perhaps better off taking the law into one's own hands rather than seeking help from the police.

"Since Mr Short became Police Commissioner, the transformation one sees in the whole Police Force in general and in individual police officers is such that one now feels a sense of security and peace, and that the Police Force can be counted on after all if need be."

The writer went on to add, "in view of the inter-island crisis that our country has been through, it is hard to imagine what Honiara would be like now (July '99) if Mr. Short had not assumed the office of Commissioner of Police, and the physical and psychological transformation that he has helped bring about in our Police Force had not taken place ... Throughout the national ordeal the only incident that the police can perhaps be faulted for was the one killing that took place on Bungana Island during the early stages of the national crisis. Other than that, in all the confrontations that they have had with members of the GRA and other law-breakers, the police have maintained a gentle and dignified composure, avoiding retaliation and focusing exclusively on peace and social stability as their primary responsibilities. Undoubtedly, only a police force guided by strong leadership and the true spirit of mutual respect and trust can uphold such a level of professionalism in the face of unprecedented lawlessness."

The writer was extremely generous in his comments for which I still take comfort, but others were less so and, in trying to motivate a police service that was damned if it did and damned if it didn't, I had to endure personal attacks on my character and motives which hurt deeply and which amounted to implied racial slurs and downright lies. Typical of one of these allegations was made in the Solomon Courier Newspaper in February 1999 when a letter purporting to have been written by Chief Martin Piri of Tobai Village in West Guadalcanal was published. The full text of this letter can be accessed by referring to the Archives of the Pacific Islands Report (PIR) under the heading -- Solomon Islands Police Chief Short Plans Legal Action Against Solomon Courier Newspaper Over Letter To The Editor - February 1999. The Editor of the Courier defended his action in publishing the letter by saying there was nothing wrong in publishing the letter written by the Chief. What has not been public knowledge, until perhaps now, is that Chief Piri did not write the letter and, when interviewed, independently, said he had no knowledge of the events said to have been witnessed by him as he had not left his village for some considerable time and that he could not have been present to witness the alleged occurrences in Aruligo road when the police were alleged to have misused their powers on Christmas Day 1998.

The Chief was quoted to have written, in one part of his alleged letter, "Let me remind my friend that this is not Soweto or Johannesburg. Please treat all Solomon Islanders as humans and not as part humans like in the former apartheid South Africa." In another paragraph, it was alleged, "The militant group term GRA (Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army) created by the media and the police is a mockery of the Guadalcanal people. There may be little groups here and there showing their frustrations over certain issues but this does not warrant the term GRA."

I had no quarrel with Mr. Patterson Mae, the then Editor of the Solomon Courier, but much less damage would have been avoided to my personal reputation and that of the police, if the letter had been properly authenticated before publication.

It became a common theme of journalists like Mr. Michael Field of AFP and even Ms. Mary Louise O'Callaghan of the Australian, to add to their articles on the unfolding Solomon's crisis, that "I had done most of my policing in apartheid South Africa," or references to being "straight out of South Africa." Yes, it was true that I had served in South Africa prior to coming to the Solomons, but it was not true that most of my service had been in that country. I had, in fact, served previously in several Commonwealth countries including Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Vanuatu, St. Helena and in Hong Kong, before the handover to China. My work in South Africa had concentrated on reducing human rights abuses and civil claims. I was also privileged to work in the North West Province Secretariat for Safety and Security where I was the Senior Legal Administrative Officer to the MEC For Safety and Security, part of the ANC led Government of Nelson Mandela.

The constant references to my policing in apartheid South Africa, particularly by Mr. Field in his articles and commentary on the Solomons crisis, could well have proved to be secondary defamation by way of innuendo -- had I taken civil action. I replied to Mr Field's inaccurate statements in a letter that I wrote to the Pacific Islands Report -- entitled "Nauru's Ban on AFP Correspondent Michael Field," which was published on August 24, 2001

Despite Ms. O'Callaghan having had a personal interview with me in my office before I left the Solomons, during which time I gave her a copy of a newly printed Purpose and Direction document I had produced; a document setting out a mission, code of conduct and a strategic direction for the police service, Ms. O'Callaghan subsequently wrote two articles which, in my opinion, contained defamatory references about myself. In the first of these, published in the Australian newspaper under the heading "Trouble in Paradise" she wrote, in a couple of paragraphs, "Into the breach has stepped Frank Short, a British policeman appointed by the previous government as police commissioner in 1997. Straight out of South Africa, he views the rise of militancy on Guadalcanal as the war that he had to have, says one observer. He has armed his force, psyched them up and persuaded them that the so called Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army are the enemy, to be demonized and crushed at any cost."

In a subsequent Commonwealth Focus article, Ms. O'Callaghan further embellished her original story by writing, "In fact in the first six months of this year (1999), Short presided over a diabolical shift in how Solomon Islands dealt with its people.

"He has armed his force, psyched them up and persuaded them that the so-called Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army are the enemy, to be demonized and crushed at any cost," says one long standing observer of Solomon Island affairs.

"This can only fuel the problem, not resolve it.

"It is an approach that has drawn the consternation of some within the Australian Government which funds a number of projects with the Solomon Islands Police Force -- a force not equipped in size, resources or training to deal with wide-scale guerrilla warfare," Ms. O'Callaghan concluded.

Ms. O'Callaghan's sources clearly had their information wrong and I have been at pains ever since leaving office to state the true facts in the many articles I have contributed to the Pacific Islands Report and to the media in the Solomons.

In the latest of these reports entitled - "A Failed State or a Politically Motivated Uprising in the Solomon Islands" dated July 30 2002, I drew attention to a report that I submitted to the then SIAC Government on November 27 1998. Quoting from part of that report, I said, "There is a political dimension to the whole situation (having outlined the rise in militancy and the aims of the militants) and this must be addressed in the shortest possible time frame if we are not to see growing militancy that could cause untold damage to national unity and inter island relations, let alone serious infringements of the criminal law. There is a need for an effective and reliable, trustworthy police service capable of providing accurate and informed intelligence on which to base advice and action. The situation cannot be allowed to continue and the police service is coming under increased pressure to deal with the crime trends, let alone having to deal with politically motivated activities that seem to develop from misinformation and a lack of national unity and provincial loyalties. Despite the often lack of in-depth intelligence, this report must be taken with seriousness and looked at in the political context to avoid an escalation of the situation." Hardly the sentiments of a Commissioner bent on crushing anyone!

The reference Ms. O'Callaghan made about "consternation of some within the Australian Government," is hardly credible since I made it part of my duty to fully brief the Australian Government through the usual liaison links of every aspect of my policy and proposed action, including providing an assessment in the early months of 1999 of the worsening security threat.

Conflict Resolution, Human Rights and Minimum Force

As for "arming the police," well I have dealt with this issue in lengthy published reports. My policy was directed to ensuring that the members of the NRSF and the RRU minimized the use of firearms, acquired conflict resolution skills and instruction about human rights, complied with international requirements on the use of arms and were guided by the principles of minimum force. A full report was also submitted to the Government with recommendations for the early acquisition of less than lethal arms for use during internal security operations, but there was no money available to acquire them.

My report entitled "The Truth is Critical to Lasting Peace and Reconciliation in the Solomon Islands" was published in the Pacific Islands Report dated April 1, 2002 (and on the SIBC's Analysis page) and this dealt with the Bungana incident, which the correspondent to the Solomon Star cited in his article mentioned earlier.

Solomons Recovery

By writing this account of how I believe my efforts were misunderstood, misinterpreted and reported inaccurately and unfairly, I hope it will encourage all journalists, but especially those not based in Honiara, with an interest in reporting on happenings and events in the Solomon Islands, and at a particularly crucial time when the truth, healing and recovery is vital, to investigate and determine the accuracy of their facts and sources of information before committing themselves to print. I hope, too, that they will work towards reinforcing, and not undermining the genuine efforts of those charged with the onerous responsibility of enforcing law and order -- and thus democracy.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment