Police battles require careful reporting

The ordinary police officer must find it terribly disheartening to read the apparently endless reporting of shenanigans among the leadership of the force.

What is going on? We have had the Jackie Selebi saga, the Bheki Cele lease scandal, apparently bitter conflict over control of crime intelligence and conflict has now also spilled over to the ranks of the prosecutors. The nation’s criminals must be laughing all the way to the ATM.

Over the Christmas period I unfortunately had to deal with the local police several times, after a series of minor break-ins. I found them unfailingly responsive, helpful and efficient.
They arrived soon after I called to report an incident, fingerprint experts were deployed to what were, after all, minor incidents, and I received updates by SMS and telephone. It would have been even better to see arrests made, but that was not to be.

As the trio of inspectors and constables sat at our dining-room table, taking my statement and filling in forms, I wondered what they made of the goings-on among their seniors. I made some tentative moves to steer a conversation in this general direction, but it clearly caused discomfort and so we returned to the theft of our bicycles.

But, really, the scandals and apparent factional wars among the leadership of the police and other parts of the criminal justice system are unacceptable. Incremental drops in some categories of crime statistics are of course welcome, but a significant improvement to South Africans’ sense of security cannot be achieved unless the police settle down and focus on the job.

All these issues came to mind when I received an angry complaint from the recently appointed head of the specialised commercial crime unit, Advocate Lawrence Mrwebi. At issue was a report, published in mid-December, on a decision by his office to drop fraud charges against the former head of crime intelligence, Richard Mdluli, in the specialised commercial crime court in Pretoria.

The report quoted unnamed sources in the Hawks as speculating that the withdrawal of the charges was “sinister” and aimed to protect powerful figures. As reports of this kind have to do, this one sought to sketch enough background to make the allegiances of various players clear. So it described Mrwebi as having defended the disgraced Selebi in court, having testified about an apparent plot against the former commissioner of police and then as having been suspended for an alleged involvement in a ­conspiracy against prosecutor Gerrie Nel.

Mrwebi objected to all of these, claiming they were lies and aimed “to inform the country that I cannot be trusted in my work and decisions I take, particularly the decision in relation to [the] Mdluli matter”.

I had a close look at other media reports, court transcripts and other documents and then wrote a detailed response. In most cases, the wording could have been a little more precise, but Mrwebi did, for instance, testify for the defence in the Selebi matter and he did talk about investigations as being part of an attempt to rescue the Scorpions from dissolution and that he saw them as directed against Selebi.

I did feel that the evidence for the reasons behind his suspension was not very strong and it would have been better to refer to the publicly given reason, namely a particular affidavit he had made. It all gets very detailed, but the one area where the matter was very clear was his complaint that the paper had not asked for his comment. He was completely right on this score: in fact, it was the National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson who had been asked for comment, but had not replied.

I recommended that the Mail & Guardian apologise and allow him space for a right to reply to outline his position on these matters. I notice that Mrwebi does not seem to have made use of the opportunity in the month since. Regardless, the apology must be made and I expect the newspaper to do so without further delay.

The episode highlights the pitfalls newspapers face in pulling together quick background summaries of complex stories. This is a real challenge, particularly on deadline. It gets even more difficult when the story is really about factional conflicts that cannot be described directly but need to be made clear by citing the relevant background.

The M&G‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact him at ombud@mg.co.za. You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message

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