Sunday, September 18 2011
To our knowledge, none of the actors involved in criminal activity caught on the CCTV footage provided by the state and published this week by this newspaper had active matters before the courts. Quite the contrary. It was our belief that some of the individuals who appeared on the screens may have been men from Nelson Street who were freed of the charge that they were gang members after the DPP advised the Chief Magistrate that the State had insufficient evidence against them. Once there is no matter before the court, we are free to publish the footage, the only risk being that of defamation, a matter for the civil, not criminal courts and thus no concern of the DPP.
On Thursday, Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard issued a release warning members of the media “to refrain from publishing material that implicate persons in criminal matters that are pending before the courts of Trinidad and Tobago,” but at no moment do we believe we were in possible contempt of court. Publication of material linking anyone to a crime before that person is charged or after he is freed cannot constitute a contempt of court, for where there is no case, there is no injustice, for there is no immediate threat to a fair trial.
Is the DPP suggesting that no footage of crime may be published by the media because at some point someone may be charged with being a gang member and that we are not to show the public what is transpiring in the hot spots because of a possible future threat to a trial of someone who is not yet under arrest? This is not the definition of contempt of court and constitutes a gag on media freedom. The threat to a trial must be imminent. You cannot limit the right of the media to publish or the public to know because of what might happen one day down the line to people who are not charged.
In his release, Mr Gaspard referred to some sections of the media purporting to identify some of the persons in the CCTV footage: Media releases in some instances presented criminal profiles of persons and other news reports showed police officers calling upon members of the public to make reports of the crimes shown in the footage “with a view, presumably, to prosecuting suspects that could be identified.” None of this is contempt of court, unless it is related to a specific matter before the court. In his release, Mr Gaspard did not name a single case, which we find decidedly odd because usually when a DPP warns the media to be careful, he refers to a specific matter before the court. It is not a general blanket warning, as this release was. We would like the DPP to name the case or cases imperilled by the footage.
While the onus may be on the DPP, the authority constitutionally in charge of all prosecutions, to enforce the power of protection for defendants, he cannot issue blanket protection for cases yet to come or cases dismissed and it is our duty to publish photos that we believe will save the public from becoming victims of gang members. This paper will continue to publish footage of people involved in criminal activity, once there is no matter before the courts. We support the release of these tapes and the call for the public to assist in capturing these criminals stalking the public.
Everywhere, every day in the world, police place posters with photographs of suspects, which ask the public to assist in their apprehension. How is this different from camera footage of men involved in crime? It is very much in the public interest for the media to show the threats to public safety in these areas, particularly after 21 men have been freed, giving the impression that all is well on Nelson Street when it is not. The police had a right to negate the lie and the media the responsibility to give the other side of the story.
We submit that the footage of crime on Nelson Street which was released by the National Security Council one day after some men were freed and which showed evidence of possible misdeeds greatly embarrassed and irked the DPP because though the footage was taken long before the Anti-Gang Act was passed, it made the public question his decision to present a no case submission. But the state and the public are free to question his decisions. We wish to remind the DPP of another case, Ambard v AG, in which Lord Atkin stated that “Justice is not a cloistered virtue; she must be allowed to suffer scrutiny and respectful, even though outspoken, comments by ordinary men.”