Today’s Opinion: Biased reporting?

POSTED: 04/27/11 11:50 AM

In an aside during Vice Prime Minister Theo Heyliger’s press conference at the government building yesterday morning, the discussion turned to the presumption of innocence and to bias reporting by this newspaper about the investigation at the Tourist Bureau.

We don’t mind criticism, and we’re always ready to examine our own handiwork. So here goes.

Biased reporting? That stemmed from a headline that read Embezzlement investigation at Tourist Bureau underway in our edition of Monday April 11.

That headline was biased, slanted, one colleague said. But how so? There is an investigation at the Tourist Bureau underway, and the focus is on embezzlement.

The question then came up whether we believe in the presumption of innocence. Well, of course we do. But people in public functions and high ranking civil servants get easily caught between a rock and a hard place when they become the subject of an investigation, due to the inevitable publicity.

Tourist Bureau director Regina Labega finds herself in this situation. Do we think she is guilty? Do we report about this case as if Mrs. Labega is guilty, or could be guilty?

We do not think so, and if others have a different opinion about this, we gladly invite them to point out what it is exactly that we wrote to nail the Tourist Bureau director to the wall.

The truth is that we do not know whether Mrs. Labega is guilty of embezzlement. The case is under investigation, and her name appears with those of six others in the complaint the dismissed head of the finance department Bas Roorda filed at the prosecutor’s office. The outcome of this exercise will show whether there are sufficient grounds to go to court. And until a court says so, nobody is guilty of anything.

The problem here is of course that the case has been widely discussed in the media. It started with the suspension of Labega and the bureau’s marketing manager Edward Dest in October of last year. When their suspension was lifted they invited the media to the office of their attorney Mr. J.G. Bloem to proclaim their innocence.

We have no reason not to believe them, and no means or information to contest their position. It is unfortunate for Labega that her case is under such public scrutiny, even more so now that the government wants to appoint her as the new director of the airport.

But public scrutiny is not the same as proclaiming somebody’s guilt. It is the price people in public functions pay when stuff like this comes up. Publicity – positive and critical – comes, in a way, with the territory.

Minister Heyliger said yesterday that the Public Prosecutor’s Office could take up to three years to conduct an investigation. All that time the potential subject of that investigation is of course legally innocent. We don’t think it will take that long. If it did we’d be the first to say that that is unreasonable.

But there is also the court of public opinion, and that’s where things get hairy. If you are under investigation, surely, you’ve done something wrong – that is the Pavlov-reaction of quite some people.

But one only has to look at the Amador Jones murder investigation to realize that this is not always the case. The victim of a drive by shooting in Dutch Quarter was detained on Saturday as a suspect in the killing, after the man had told investigators that he’d been shot at by Jones’ brother Omar. Yesterday morning the prosecutor’s office decided to release him because they realized they had the wrong man.

Being arrested on a murder rap does not look good on anybody’s resume, even if the authorities conclude later on that you’re not their man. But that conclusion sets a suspect also free. Now he will travel back to St. Kitts an innocent man, whereas had he slipped away on Saturday from the hospital, he could have been considered a murder suspect on the run.

This same logic applies to Regina Labega’s situation, and Chief Prosecutor Mos pointed that out in our newspaper as well. The allegations are on his desk, but that’s what they are at the moment: allegations. A thorough investigation could go either way. If there is a good explanation for the reported irregularities, the investigation will set Labega free. And if the results are different, well, Minister Heyliger said, in that case I’m sure that Regina will do the honorable thing – that is, resign from her (future) position as airport director.

Duly noted.

 

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