Media is uniquely placed to play an important role in police reforms at the policy as well as operational level. Media persons are constantly in touch with policymakers and frontline police officers, and importantly with the community at large. According to PILDAT’s publication, Policing and Media in Pakistan, media can support police reforms through its several important roles such as a) watchdog — exposing corrupt and unfair practices, b) agenda setter — raising awareness in public about their rights, policing issues and generating pressure on authorities to reform the police, and c) gatekeeper — acting as a public forum for diverse community groups and perspectives, and promote inclusive debate.
Media generally portrays police as a rotten basket — an institution which lacks the capacity to perform its core functions, lacking integrity, competence and sensitivity to people’s needs. Such portrayal unfortunately resonates with the experiences of a large number of citizens. However, it does ignore contributions of a number of hardworking, honest police officers of all ranks with demonstrated ability to give up their lives to protect citizens from criminals and terrorists.
Media in its ‘watchdog role’ over the last decade or so has indeed made the political executive and the police leadership more conscious of their respective roles, although the pressure is not enough to generate specific demands for police reforms. Sindh and Balochistan, in 2011, thoughtlessly repealed the Police Order 2002 and reverted to colonial and undemocratic police law, the Police Act of 1861. This went almost unnoticed in the media. The high court initially in Sindh and lately in Balochistan intervened to support the people’s basic right to have the services of a fair and accountable police. Again, there is hardly any debate in the media regarding non-implementation of provisions relating to public safety commissions and police complaint authorities, which are crucial to help make the police politically neutral and accountable to the people.
Two recent, widely covered, cases by the media are murders of Shahzaib in Karachi and Zain in Lahore. In both these cases, the victims’ families refused to pursue their cases citing fear, inadequate means and lack of protection for the families. It is reassuring though that the Supreme Court took notice of the injustice in Shahzaib’s murder case and hopefully justice will be served; the larger issue however remains unresolved.
On a positive note, social media recently has emerged as a stronger watchdog than newspapers and news channels as is evident in the case of Naqeebullah Mehsud’s murder. A spontaneous and strong campaign in the social media brought the issue on the national print and electronic media and helped push the elephant of extrajudicial killings out of the room.
Media’s role as ‘agenda setter’ on police reforms has been largely inconsequential. It needs to play a more meaningful role to raise awareness regarding issues and need for police reforms, such as, standardised democratic governance structure for the police and its implementation in all the four provinces, financial support to the police, for example, provision of funds to bear the cost of investigations, and working collaboration amongst law-enforcement departments to counterterrorism and organised and serious crimes across Pakistan.
Media’s role as a ‘public forum’ for police reforms in the country lacks meaningful engagement with diverse groups, and informed and inclusive discussion on issues. Contentious issues such as procedures for recording of crimes, amendments to criminal laws, role of paramilitary forces such as Rangers in policing, and policing responses in Balochistan and Fata require open and inclusive debate amongst diverse groups and stakeholders.
In India, watchdog activism amongst the media and its collaboration with the civil society seems to be comparatively stronger. One such example is the 2011 movie No one killed Jessica. In this movie, which is based on a real story, Rani Mukherjee, in the role of a news reporter, supported effectively by the civil society generates awareness and successfully moves authorities to rectify the injustice, meted out in Jessica’s case earlier at the trial court, through guilty verdicts successively in High Court and the Supreme Court of India.
Likewise, in the UK in an unprovoked racist attack, Stephen Lawrence, a black teenage student, was murdered by five white males in London in 1993. The case engaged the British media for almost six years with varying intensity. In 1997, the Daily Mail ran five pictures of white men on the front page with the caption: ‘The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong let them sue us’. Jack Straw, the home secretary, ordered an inquiry, which led to Macpherson Report in 1999 accompanied by wide media coverage. The report blamed the London police for professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers. The report made 70 recommendations — 67 of which had led to specific changes in practice or the law within two years of its publication.
Unfortunately we don’t see such effective campaigns in our country leading to policy and procedural changes despite tragic incidents, such as, Youhannabad lynching in 2015. It is, therefore, vital to work on building capacity of journalists covering police and criminal justice issues so that they can perform their watchdog, agenda setter and gatekeeper roles vis-a-vis police reforms more effectively.
Executive, legislators and police leaders need to be asked specific questions regarding police reforms, such as reversal of democratically-enacted police law — Police Order 2002 in Sindh and Balochistan, poor implementation of the Police Order 2002, hopelessly insufficient budgetary support for police training, operations and investigations, etc.
The portrayal of police as a rotten basket needs to be reviewed. It was the police, which successfully countered the monster of sectarian terrorism in Punjab in the 1990s. The role of the provincial police, in the last few years, especially in K-P, Punjab and Sindh, and the premier civilian intelligence agency headed by a senior police officer in countering terrorism is also praiseworthy. Media campaigns like the Police Awaam Saath Saath are playing an important role in making the viewers’ reflect on their relationship with the police. We need more such efforts.
It is time to move the debate on police reforms from mere criticism of the police to understanding the complexities of policing, constraints and the specific needs. This requires an alliance of the media, civil society and the criminal justice experts followed by an organised effort. Media’s roles as an agenda setter and public forum are critical; only deeper knowledge of the problem will help develop informed public opinion which will act as a stimulus for police reforms.