The police’s duty to inform

Why was there no press conference at any stage of the Rahman investigation to keep the media informed… as tends to happen in all serious countries?

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.

Last Tuesday's discovery of a dead body in St George's Bay - believed to be that of 17-year-old Russian student Polina Rahman, though astonishingly there is still no official confirmation a full three days later - has exposed serious shortcomings in the police force's entire approach to media relations.

The problem has less to do with police procedure when it comes to investigating crimes, than with the agonisingly slow (at times dysfunctional) process of releasing information.

From a strictly media perspective, the police's handling of events over the past two weeks has been little short of abysmal, given the sheer extent of the curiosity that such a sinister story automatically inspired among the public at large.

Polina Rahman went missing late last Tuesday night, very shortly after arriving in Malta. Within less than a week, news emerged that a second young female tourist, also from Eastern Europe, had likewise mysteriously disappeared - this time in Qawra.

Inevitably, rumours spread like wildfire that the two cases may have been linked. Some people openly aired suspicions of a human trafficking network, suggesting that the girls had been abducted by criminals involved in the international sex industry.

Aside from these and other fanciful hypotheses, many people's minds automatically turned to scenarios involving kidnap, rape and murder. At one point there was even talk of a 'serial killer' (somewhat strangely, seeing as there was still no evidence of death - still less murder - at the time).

Such was the intensity of popular speculation, that FELTOM, the language school federation, felt compelled to issue a press release to soberly remind us all that the statistics still confirm Malta's reputation as one of the safest destinations in Europe for young people.

With hindsight we now know (or at least have good reason to believe) that the hype and speculation was indeed off the mark. But faced with the barrage of misinformation surrounding this case, one has to ask why the police proved so very reluctant to actually respond to demands for information... thus indirectly fuelling speculation, and generally adding to the overall sensation of anxiety and even panic among the population at large.

Why was there no press conference at any stage of the investigation to keep the media informed... as tends to happen in all serious countries?

Instead, individual journalists had to ask the police's Community and Media Relations Unit for updates: only to be constant informed that no information could be given... not because it was unavailable, but for lack of official clearance by the unit's superior officers.

In other words, what we were told was not that there was no information to give; but rather that the information could not be released because of internal police protocols. And that is simply not good enough by any stretch of the imagination.

How can anybody claim to be surprised that the general public should give such free rein to its colourful imagination... when the police themselves openly refuse to dispel such misconceptions when they have every opportunity to do so? And what can such absurdly secretive behaviour possibly achieve, other than to feed an already voracious appetite for conspiracy theories?

All this would be bad enough were we dealing with an isolated mishandling of events. But the fact is that Maltese media invariably encounter similar obstacles when trying to prise information out of the CMRU: and the result is that misinformation nearly always finds its way into the popular gossip stream.

The best example remains that of the New Year's Day double fatality in High Street, Sliema. On that occasion, not only did the police keep its cards clamped firmly to its chest throughout proceedings; but it even launched an unprecedented 'appeal' to the media to stop reporting the incident at all - an unheard of and quite frankly dumbfounding request, which flies in the face of the same Police Force's duty to inform.

And yet, the same Police Force is very quick to convene press conferences and dispense information, when it feels it is in its own direct interest to do so. Consider the case of Bastjan Borg: a mentally disabled man shot dead by five policemen in an altercation in Balzan in 2008.

The Commissioner's response? To immediately hold a press conference, and declare that the five officers concerned in this fatality had acted in self-defence.

Even here, this was not an isolated case. In 2011, the father of former PN councillor Cyrus Engerer was arrested on drug possession cases, just days after his son defected to Labour.

When the police stood accused of being politically motivated in pursuing Mr Engerer, the Commissioner's response was once again to hold a press conference to exculpate his Force of all blame.

Faced with such blatant double standards, one has to ask why Police Commissioner John Rizzo is always so quick to shed light on individual cases when his own officers are under fire (so to speak)... but not in any other cases, especially those where lack of clear information can only cause more harm than good.

Perhaps this is one area the Prime Minister may wish to look at, when implementing his recent promise to 'reform' the Corps.

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