Today’s Opinion: Judge, Jury and Hangman

POSTED: 04/28/11 12:30 PM

By Fabian Badejo

The spike in the crime rate on St. Martin is not an isolated phenomenon; all over the Caribbean – from Jamaica to Guyana, passing through Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Trinidad – the story is basically the same: an unprecedented increase in criminal activity. We can glance through media all around the world and find that this is, in fact, a universal trend. Each nation, each community, is grappling with this cankerworm the best way it can, and St. Martin is, of course, again, no exception. What has become somewhat exceptional, however, is the way crime is reported in the so-called mainstream media on St. Martin. I am going to be specific and refer to a case that is still unsolved and very much fresh in our collective memory on this island.

Amador Jones, a young St. Martiner, was gunned down cowardly by what several people consider a hitman after he had finished playing a game of softball. The murder occurred outside the car wash in front of the Jose Lake/John Cooper Ball Park. A few days later, there was a drive-by shooting in which one man, said to be from St. Kitts was wounded in the leg. The vehicle used in the shooting was later found set on fire in the Oyster Pond area. The victim of the shooting was hospitalized and arrested on Saturday – same day as the murdered Amador Jones was laid to rest – and was expected to appear before the Judge of Instruction on April 26, 2011, apparently in connection with the killing of Amador Jones.

This Kittitian man obviously has no name nor initials. He is reported to have stated that he was shot by the brother of Amador Jones, hence the reason for his detention by the Public Prosecutor. The story, of course, made front page news in the island’s two dailies. However, it is the reporting in the Today of April 26, 2011 that stunned me as a professional journalist who was just five years ago editor of the same newspaper.

With a sub-title of “Brother of murder victim wanted for drive-by shooting”, the writer said the paper had been told by the Chief Public Prosecutor that the Kittitian man – now referred to as “the suspect” (apparently in the murder of Amador Jones) –  “told investigators that he had been shot by Omar J., the brother of Amador Jones.”

According to Today, the Chief Public Prosecutor admitted that the Kittitian’s arrest was simply based on a theory. This theory, from what one can infer, reasons that since the Kittitian was shot only a few days after the murder, and he claims he was shot by the brother of the slain victim, the arithmetic was simple. The Today quoted the Chief Public Prosecutor as stating: “But it is as clear as glass. He was shot down a couple of days after the murder without a clear motive.”

Now comes the clincher. The Today continues in its article: “Omar J., who fled the scene of Wednesday’s shooting in Dutch Quarter, is still on the run. He managed to hit his brother’s suspected killer in his leg. Afterwards, he fled in the direction of Oyster Pond where he set the car in which he made his escape alight.”

From this passage, one must conclude that it has been conclusively proven beyond any shadow of doubt that Omar J. was the one who shot at the Kittitian in the drive-by incident and fled the scene to destroy the vehicle he used in the act. Were that not to be the case – and as far as we know, none of these “facts” have been legally established yet – then the only other conclusion would be that the writer was a material witness who saw Omar J. shoot at the Kittitian in the leg, flee the crime scene and finally set the vehicle on fire! This is jaundiced reporting at best. No crime reporter worth his salt would write a paragraph like that about a case that is still sub judice, and no newspaper worth the name would publish such blatantly contemptuous reporting. The Judge of Instruction had not even heard the “suspect” yet for crying out loud!

Today could have been forgiven for a totally biased, unprofessional reporting that does not even qualify to be called “yellow journalism” were it not for the apparently systematic, consistent and persistent manner in which it publishes this kind of tendentious report or opinion. The newspaper seems bent on creating the impression that its only raison d’etre is to seek the downfall of prominent St. Martiners, whether they be ministers, heads of government departments or nominees whose past it dredges to disqualify them from new appointments. In fact, it gloats about its success in bringing down a minister, and obviously relishes the chance to distort the policies of another with whom it disagrees. This cannot be the Today I edited for over two years!

Responsible journalism requires that facts are checked and cross-checked before they are published, but also that local knowledge and sensitivity guide the treatment stories, especially crime stories, receive. How sensitive is it to claim, just a couple of days after his brother was laid to rest, that Omar J. actually shot the Kittitian suspect in the leg, just because the latter said so?

And how can someone, who has not even been described neither by the Police nor the Chief Public Prosecutor as a suspect in the drive-by shooting in Dutch Quarter, be “on the run” without any public notice that he was wanted by the authorities? I am certain that IF the authorities wanted Omar J. they knew where to look for him at least. Where did they look and who did they ask about his whereabouts?

It is not the role of any media to be judge, jury and hangman all at once. I still believe, and I’m sure many others share this view, too, that one of the fundamental tenets of justice is that EVERYONE is innocent until proven guilty. In murder or attempted murder cases, that proof must be beyond any shadow of doubt.

It is also true that, as the saying goes, justice delayed, is justice denied. Understaffing cannot be any excuse for a person to wait four months and more, especially after being hounded out of office, for the prosecutor’s office to press charges against them.

In the same vein, being considered for a new post cannot be enough reason for the prosecutor’s office to suddenly place a pending investigation on the priority list, when the candidate in question has been discharging an equally sensitive and high-profile function on behalf of the island for months, while their name is constantly mentioned to create the impression that they have committed some awful crime against humanity!

Furthermore, from a strictly journalistic point of view, basing opinions expressed by the editor of the newspaper on anonymous online blogs smacks of rumor-mongering. Would the Today publish a story based on an anonymous letter to the editor vilifying any prominent Dutch official, past or present?

All of these combined make it very HAAR(D) for me to remain silent. In fact, I have decided to find better use for the 50 cents I spend daily (US$3 weekly) buying the Today. And that is heart-wrenching for me given my past association with the paper.

 

Editor’s note:

The paragraph Badejo contests should have contained the word allegedly (as in: he allegedly managed to hit his brother’s suspected killer …, etc.), because it reads now indeed as if the identity of the shooter is an established fact. But it is a small omission, given the explanation in the previous paragraph.

Other than that, if the Chief Prosecutor says that Omar J. is on the run, there is only one explanation for it: he is wanted by the law. That does not mean that he is guilty, it means that he is wanted in connection with a crime. That’s all we wrote. We too stand for the presumption of innocence.

This newspaper is indeed proud that it broke the story that led to the downfall of a minister. But it is what the minister did, not what we wrote that brought about her downfall. Many people are still angry about this evident self-enrichment scheme.

We suspect that the reference to distorting a minister’s policy may have to do with Minister Duncan’s gun policy. In fact, we have contributed to a better policy, because in an opinion piece published in Today on Friday March 11 under the headline a very special experience we wrote this: “Making it possible for teenagers to obtain a gun license is insane. Making it possible for youngsters barely into their twenties is not such a good idea either. If the minister is going to do this at all, then let’s set the bar at a sensible level and make the minimum age for owning a gun 25.”

At first, against the advice of the police who wanted an age limit of 21, Minister Duncan set that limit in the original policy at 18, but that has in the meantime been changed to ….25.

So what exactly are we distorting? Opinion has but one goal: to stimulate debate, so that together we arrive at better solutions.

About anonymous blogs: they are the heartbeat of a modern society and their content is as valid as the opinion of a policy advisor to our Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth.

And yeah, our raison d’être is to play the role of the critical watchdog, so we will always look critically at the background of candidates for key functions. That’s what newspapers are there for, remember?

As for our opinions: they are what they are and we ask nobody to agree with them. On the contrary, we challenge readers to come up with their own views. In that sense, Badejo’s contribution to this opinion page is, and always will be, more than welcome.

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