The President of the Journalists Association of Samoa (J.A.W.S.), Rudy Bartley, believes young Police recruits need to be educated on the relationship between the media and the Police.
Mr. Bartley made the point in response to Samoa Observer’s Photographer, Misiona Simo, being detained on the job trying to photograph a car crash last month. The J.A.W.S. President said he is both surprised and disappointed.
In December, Mr. Simo was photographing a minivan that crashed into the bushes at Togitogiga. While he was taking photos of the van, Police officers stopped him and pulled him inside their car.
“Mr. Simo informed them that the incident occurred on a public road and he could take photographs, but they insisted he could not take pictures,” the news report reads. “The Police officers were later ordered by their superiors to let the photographer go as he was just doing his job.”
Rules of engagement between Police and journalists are not explicit, but there are understandings that have been passed down generations of both parties, Mr. Bartley said.
Common practice is that photographers can work on public roads, and seek permission from the owners on private property. Everything else is common sense.
“If you’re on a public road, then we have all the right to be on that, just as long as we don’t contaminate the scene or hinder somebody’s work, like standing in front of a fire hydrant or a police man evacuating somebody.”
Police should be providing access to accident or crime scenes to allow the media to conduct their work, which Mr. Bartley said complements the work of Police and emergency services.
“If a car accident is reported on, and it was caused by speeding, drunk driving, whatever, it tells other people ‘I should maybe not drink as much because this is the end result’,” he said.
“It’s an educational tool to tell other people what will happen if you drink too much or you’re speeding. That’s the role of the media, to inform and also educate.”
Mr. Bartley said he was surprised and disappointed to learn that a photographer was stopped from doing his work. He believes it could be the first time this has happened.
To combat this happening, Police should be undergoing media response training, and there should be explicit rules on how to handle media at a scene. Mr. Bartley said simple improvements like media identification badges would go a long way.
“If a person came up to the cordon, and said I’m a media person, I would like to take pictures and this is my ID, I am a reporter for this and this, please let us in, Police should check if credentials are official and then of course, tell them the boundaries, for their own safety.”
Police should know where media can report from without disturbing the scene while still allowing reporters and photographers to operate freely.
Mr. Bartley acknowledged that for safety reasons, limits are important but they are common sense ones.
“It’s not about restricting the job, it’s about making sure everyone on site is safe,” he said.
The journalism association met with the Fire and Emergency Services recently on the same issue, and came out with simple guidelines for how media should operate around accidents.
“They said the film crews are alright to go and take photos of any traffic accidents or fires, just as long as they identify themselves, wear safety high visibility vests and closed shoes,” Mr. Bartley said.
If media and police can develop a guidebook together, both parties will benefit. Mr. Bartley said perhaps it’s especially important for younger or new police recruits who don’t trust the media.
“They think we are digging up things, we’re there to dig, there to expose something.
“They are very apprehensive, they don’t want to cooperate because they think if you write something bad it will affect their work… so the easiest thing to do is just say no, and be very strict.
“I think that’s their coping mechanism,” he said.
A return to weekly or fortnightly press conferences by the Police Commissioner could also help improve the relationship between police and media, Mr. Bartley believes, and would improve transparency.
What happened to Mr. Simo should never have happened, Mr Bartley said.
Police Commissioner Fuiavailili Egon Keil could not be reached for comment.